Tag Archives: Thailand

Sinohydro Looks To Restart Work On More Myanmar Dams

The Salawin river (a.k.a. the Nujiang river in China) at the border village of Mae Sam Laep. Myanmar is on the left bank. Attribution: Takeaway at en.wikipediaSinohydro, the Chinese state-owned contractor for Myanmar’s suspended (for now) Myitsone dam project near the headwaters of the Irrawaddy river and China’s leading dam builder, faces a new environmental and reputational challenge now the government in Naypyidaw has approved construction of the controversial Hatgyi dam on the Salween river.

The isolated Salween is one of the world’s longest free-flowing rivers. It rises on the Tibetan plateau and courses through the canyons and gorges formed when the plates of the Indian subcontinent and Asian mainland met. For much of its 2,800 kilometers, the river flows through Yunnan, where it is called the Nu Jiang. Then it cuts through the eastern edge of Myanmar and marks 120 kilometers of the border with northwestern Thailand, a portion of which is shown in the photo above, before turning back into Myanmar to reach the Andaman Sea at the old teak trading port of Mawlamyaing.

En route, it flows through the watershed known as the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan, a UNESCO world heritage site. The river is so environmentally sensitive and biodiverse that local protests forced Beijing in 2004 to cut plans to build 13 hydroelectric dams along its own stretch of the river to four, and then in 2009 to suspended even those pending a still uncompleted environmental review. One of the proposed dams would have been bigger than the Three Gorges dam.

Map of Hatgyi dam on the Salween River in Myanmar The $1 billion 1,200 MW Hatgyi dam is one of at least five hydropower plants planned for the Myanmar leg of the Salween by a partnership of the Myanmar and Thailand state electric utilities (see map, right, from the environmental group, Salween Watch). Hatgyi’s go-ahead follows the signing of a peace deal between Naypyidaw and ethnic Karen rebels. Sinohydro, which was given the contract to build the dam in 2006 before fighting stopped construction starting, has reportedly been stockpiling equipment and material at the site since mid-April in preparation for a resumption.

Environmental groups are gearing up again to block construction, saying it will destroy traditional village life along the ecologically fragile river, forcibly uprooting local populations and flooding farmland. Periodic local protests against the project have been staged since 2004, the most recent in March.

Sinohydro is also the contractor for another proposed dam on the river that could now go ahead following a peace agreement between Naypyidaw and a different group of ethnic rebels, in this case the Shan. The $6 billion 7,100 MW Tasang dam is planned to be the one of the highest in southeast Asia, taller than the Three Gorges. China’s state-owned Three Gorges Corp., which built and runs the Three Gorges dam, is a sub-contractor to the Tasang dam project. Some 60,000 villagers will have to be relocated to build it. Sinohydro has reportedly started surveying work there. As with Hatgyi, most of the power generated will be sold to Thailand and China.

The Tasang, Hatgyi and Myitsone dams are just three of 56 hydrodam projects in Myanmar proposed, under construction or completed that Chinese companies are involved in, according to a count by International Rivers, a riverine NGO. Sinohydro is involved in at least 17 of them, equivalent to one in eight of all its 132 current dam projects outside China. The international expansion of its business is leading the company to be more environmentally and socially responsive than it was in the past. The extent to which it will need to be in Myanmar may most depend on how rapidly the government in Naypyidaw wants to push ahead with opening the country to rapid development, and how well the economic rationale for projects originally intended to provide export earnings to fund a military dictatorship that has now stepped back from power hold up.

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Patrolling The Speed Trade Along The Mekong

Joint armed police patrols along the upper reaches of the Mekong where it passes between China, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand are to start in mid-December. Agreement between the four countries to patrol the waters was reached at the end of October following the execution-like killing of 13 Chinese seamen earlier that month in attacks on their two freighters for which nine Thai soldiers were eventually arrested. (They have pleaded not guilty to charges of murder, though earlier reports quoted Thai authorities as saying the soldiers had admitted the killings.)

While the area is part of the Golden Triangle, long notorious as the stronghold of the Shan and Wu drug lords who control the opium trade, it is now a center for amphetamine production, a more marketable drug that is both cheaper and easier to produce than opium and heroin. Thailand is the region’s largest market for amphetamines, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), a view reflected in the fast rising volumes of seizures of the drug in China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, 133 million pills last year up from 32 million in 2008.

For some time there have been reports of vessels on the river that refuse to pay protection money being seized by gangs and used to ship amphetamines and other drugs. The two vessels attacked in October were found with large supplies of pills on board. Units of the Thai army are reported to be complicit in these protections of the amphetamine trade, to which, as the UNODC map shows, the Mekong provides a backbone.

Greater Mekong Subregion: Primary Metaampthetamine Trafficking Routes

Chinese vessels have frequently been the subject of these attacks as they dominate shipping on the river, an important trade conduit between Yunnan and Southeast Asia. According to Xinhua, 116 of the 130 ships involved in international shipping on the Mekong are operated by Chinese companies. All maritime trade along the river has been suspended since the early October attacks.

However, the illicit drugs trade operates on both sides of the river, with UNODC saying that the greatest number of illicit amphetamine manufacturing labs discovered and shut down in the region, 458 in 2009, were in China. Along with Myanmar, China is the largest producer of illicit amphetamines in the region. In 2010, UNODC says, 378 illicit labs were detected in China, compared to 391 in 2009 and 244 in 2008. Manufacturing of amphetamines appears to have shifted to Yunnan from Guangdong and Fujian, following the crackdown there since 2006. That crackdown is now moving west.

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Trouble For China Spreads From The Irrawaddy To The Mekong

More trouble for Beijing on its unruly southwestern reaches beyond Yunnan. Pirates seized two Chinese freighters on the upper reaches of the Mekong river in northern Thailand, killing at least 11 of their 13-strong crews and purloining the vessels to run drugs from Myanmar. Some of the sailors appear to have been executed. The attacks took place on October 5. Thai river police retook both boats in a gunfight. Some 900,000 methamphetamine tablets worth more than $3 million were reportedly recovered.

Chinese vessels plying the river as it flows through the Golden Triangle have long been targets for pirates who have sought protection money or used the boats for drugs running. Thai authorities suspect that the ethnic Shan drug trafficker Nor Kham is behind the attacks, including the latest ones. Yunnan provincial authorities have now suspended all Chinese passenger and cargo shipping on the Mekong. Nine out of ten the 130 ships involved in international shipping on the Mekong are Chinese-flagged, according to Chinese authorities responsible for maritime trade on the river.

The latest incident follows a succession of attacks on Chinese-backed hydroelectric dams on the headwaters of the Irrawaddy river in Kachin State in northern Myanmar, culminating in the suspension of work on the Myitsone dam amidst growing anti-Chinese sentiment in the country and a call from Beijing to protect the interest of Chinese firms operating there.

Update: The foreign ministry on Tuesday confirmed 12 deaths with one sailor still missing.

Second Update: Thai authorities say a group of renegade soldiers have admitted responsibility for the killings.

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Beijing’s Harder Line Pushes North Korean Defectors To Thailand

Our eye was caught by a report in South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo that increasing numbers of North Korean defectors are turning up in Thailand after fleeing the Stalinist state and making a dangerous clandestine journey across China and Laos. The paper quotes Thai immigration authorities as saying that they took more than 1,000 North Korean asylum seekers into custody last year, compared to fewer than 400 the year before, and expect the numbers to grow this year. Unlike China and Laos, Thailand does not repatriate North Korean refugees but seeks to settle them in a third-country. To put that number in to context, a new book on North Korean defectors estimates that some 15,000 have left the country since the end of the Korean War (1953), with the majority leaving in the past 10 years.

China has been taking a harder line on returning North Korean defectors since late 2008. After the arrests in North Korea last year of two American TV journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, authorities raided safe houses in China used by North Korean defectors and deported a South Korean Christian activist who helped them, part of a network that is said to have smuggled hundreds of defectors out of North Korea. We have also heard  reports from Japan of several asylum seekers who have taken sanctuary in Japanese and South Korean diplomatic missions in China being prevented from leaving the country as they once would have been allowed to do.

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