The Upper Yeywa hydroelectric dam project, slated by the military junta to resume construction in December and produce electricity by March 2025. (Supplied)

Rising fears of inundation as northern Shan dam projects gather pace

Myanmar’s military regime is pushing forward with work on controversial hydropower projects in northern Shan State, where multiple ethnic armed groups operate, while villagers fear for their futures.


In the small village of Tar Lone, beside the Namtu River in northern Shan State’s Kyaukme Township, residents anxiously await news about the Upper Yeywa hydroelectric dam project, as they have been doing since the last time a military regime was in power.

There’s much at stake: if the dam is completed, their houses and lands will be underwater.

Farmer U Win Naing* told Frontier in April that the junta-appointed village chief had issued a warning to residents two months earlier.

“We were told to move because the whole village will be flooded once the dam is finished. I have not heard from them [authorities] since then,” he said.

Like most Tar Lone residents, Win Naing farms oranges and other citrus fruits, which are then transported by river to the markets of Hsipaw town. He worries about what will become of his property and livelihood if he’s forced to move.

“I grew up here and this is where my family should receive my inheritance. How could we leave our property behind?,” he said. “We have had a peaceful life here. But now our future is uncertain.”

Work on the 280-megawatt dam first began under the former junta, called the State Peace and Development Council, in 2008 but it was repeatedly stalled for various reasons. Since a new junta, the State Administration Council, overthrew the elected National League for Democracy government in 2021, the project appears to be accelerating.

Tar Lone is in one of the 11 village tracts along the river that the environmental group Namtu River Protectors warns will be flooded by the dam’s reservoir, likely affecting tens of thousands of people.

Chaw Su*, 26, another Tar Lone resident, told Frontier that most of the village’s 500 residents are farmers and their land is their primary source of income, which they face losing if Tar Lone is flooded and they are forced to relocate.

“The dam is already half-built. If the information we received from inside the village is correct, it will be finished in early 2025. The pilot testing will be carried out within this year,” said Chaw Su.

In March, military-run state media appeared to confirm this information when it reported that “53.22 percent of the project has been completed”, with construction on the main dam set to begin in December and electric power production by March 2025.

Communities ‘felt tricked’

The Upper Yeywa dam is being built jointly by the International Power Group and France’s Razel-Bec company, while Japanese, Swiss, German, French and Chinese companies have also been involved in the project in some capacity.

IPG is a subsidiary of the International Group of Entrepreneurs, which was sanctioned last year by the European Union for providing “financial support” to the Myanmar military, including during the violent crackdown on the Rohingya in 2017. According to investigative group Justice For Myanmar, Germany’s Lahmeyer withdrew from the project in 2019, and the Swiss company Stucky SA pulled out in 2020.

However, the JFM statement from March said IPGRB, the joint venture between IGE and Razel-Bec, has continued work on the dam, as have China’s Zhejiang Orient Engineering, Japan’s Toshiba and Myanmar’s Shwe Taung and Aung Pyitan.

The JFM report also accused European engineering firms of continuing to earn millions in consultancy fees for advising the junta on environmentally destructive dam projects. These firms include the Swedish AFRY AB, which consulted on the Upper Yeywa dam. Soon after, AFRY AB announced it would exit Myanmar due to the “deteriorating human rights situation” but insisted it had “not contributed to any violations of human rights”.

Military-owned Myawaddy TV, meanwhile, reported that the regime’s electric power minister, U Thaung Han, and the Commander of Lashio-based North Eastern Command, Major-General Naing Naing Oo, visited the Upper Yeywa site on March 6. It was the latest in a series of visits by the pair, and might indicate a particularly close interest by the junta, which has been struggling to produce electricity, with rolling blackouts in Yangon and Mandalay.

The Upper Yeywa project on the Namtu – also known by locals as the Dokhtawaddy or Myitnge River – involves building a roller-compacted earth wall 883 feet (270m) long and 335 feet (102m) high. When the dam is completed, it will use four generators to produce 1,409Kw a year.

A group of villagers stage a protest near the Namtu River, in Hsipaw Township, against the Upper Yeywa hydroelectric dam project on May 2, 2022. (Supplied)

U Soe Thura Tun, the National Unity Government’s minister of electricity and energy, said he was involved in a project survey for Upper Yeywa carried out under the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party government, which served from 2011-2016 under President U Thein Sein.

Soe Thura Tun was elected to parliament to represent the NLD in the 2015 and 2020 elections. The NUG is a parallel administration appointed by elected lawmakers deposed in the coup.

He said residents were “satisfied” by a USDP government promise to purchase their land and offer them new agricultural plots in a “safe location” nearby. But he claims the USDP later reneged on this agreement, making it even more difficult for the NLD to negotiate a solution when it came to power in 2016.

“The people who agreed with the Thein Sein government felt tricked… The discussions with locals were more difficult than before,” he said, adding that increased activity by ethnic armed organisations in the area also complicated the process.

While the project was never officially suspended, he said progress slowed considerably under the NLD due to these problems.

Dams, dams, more dams

The Upper Yeywa is not the only hydropower project that has people in Shan concerned. There are also plans to build a Middle Yeywa dam as well as dams on the Namtu and Nam Ma rivers.

However, the junta has shown itself largely inept at implementing even basic infrastructure projects, let alone its more ambitious proposals. Whether all of these projects actually come to fruition is uncertain, but the military’s initial moves are already disrupting local communities.

Sai Khe Sai, a spokesperson for environmental group Action for Shan State Rivers, said that more than 80 dams are planned in Myanmar, over half of which are in Shan. If the dams are built, they will displace many communities and make it difficult for people to support themselves and their families.

“Any dams planned for the area will be opposed by people from the east, north and south of Shan State as well as by activists and members of every political party,” Khe Sai told Frontier.

This year on March 14, the International Day of Action for Rivers, about 60 residents of four village tracts in northern Shan’s Hsipaw Township gathered on the Nam Ma River to protest against the proposed 30MW Nam Sin dam, Khe Sai said.

Residents of Na Nio, Nam Ma, Mawk Tawng, and Mong Jit village tracts held banners in Shan and Burmese that read: “This river is not for sale for personal profit” and “Let all Shan State rivers flow freely forever.”

Local outlet SHAN News reported that a Memorandum of Understanding for a feasibility study on the Nam Sin dam project was signed in August 2019, by Yangon-based Uni Energy and the Shan State government, then under NLD control. According to the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration, the company’s leadership includes a Chinese national.

The SHAN report said Uni Energy tried to meet residents of affected areas, but when it sent representatives in October 2019, villagers blockaded the entrance to their community. “We don’t want to meet them. We don’t want to discuss the dam construction with them,” the Nam Ma village administrator told SHAN News at the time.

Nam Ma residents are already dealing with the negative consequences of a big coal mine operated by the Mandalay-based Ngwe Yi Pale company, which Khe Sai alleges has expanded into a vital watershed area since the coup.

“Local residents do not have electricity. If [the Nam Sin dam] is actually implemented, people will only suffer,” he added, predicting the electricity generated would be sold to China and Thailand rather than benefiting the local community.

Meanwhile, Mandalay-registered Natural Current Energy Hydropower Co Ltd is involved in the proposed 210MW Namtu dam, about 20km upstream from Hsipaw town. An agreement was signed between the company and the junta’s energy ministry in April last year, while residents warn that when it is completed and its reservoir full, it will inundate the village of Lilu, a predominantly Shan community.

The status of the 735mg Middle Yeywa dam, which was to be developed by Norway’s state-owned SN Power Company, remains unclear. In January 2021, SN Power was purchased by Scatec, a private renewable energy company headquartered in Oslo. Last year, Scatec told activist group Burma Campaign UK that it is “closely monitoring the situation in Myanmar” and follows the “highest international standards”.

“If and when the situation in Myanmar allows, we will ensure to follow the same standards for the Middle Yeywa project,” the statement read.

The Upper Yeywa hydroelectric dam project will flood 11 village tracts upon completion. (Supplied)

Militarised projects

In Lay Su village in Nam Hsim village tract, one of the 11 most threatened by the Upper Yeywa dam, Ko Kyaw Win*, 30, told Frontier that every resident will lose their farmland. He said there is clear evidence the regime is planning to move forward very soon with construction on the main portion of the dam.

“They are building roads and putting up tents as temporary accommodation for workers to stay until the work is finished,” said Kyaw Win. “The construction site is off limits to us. There are three security gates and soldiers are stationed in a booth to turn us away. It is difficult to know what is happening at the site unless they make another announcement.”

Sai Zin, another member of the Action for Shan State Rivers group, also said the military is heavily guarding the project.

“Even residents who live near the construction site are not allowed to pass through,” he claimed.

In Moetay village, also near the Upper Yeywa project, residents say forests have been cleared near the dam site in preparation for more construction, turning the cool and pleasant weather uncomfortably hot.

“It would be best if the international companies involved leave. During the NLD government, a German company and a French company withdrew. Somehow, after the coup, they are still cooperating with this murderous junta,” Sai Zin said of the remaining firms. “Even though the country is in a state of unrest, the consent of the local community is important for any project or any natural resource, regardless of who is in charge of the government.”

The Upper Yeywa and Middle Yeywa projects are also located in areas where two powerful ethnic armed groups operate – the Shan State Progress Party and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army.

The groups cooperated to expel rival armed group the Restoration Council of Shan State from northern Shan during fierce fighting in 2021. But since the coup they’ve followed different paths, with the TNLA supporting newly formed resistance forces while the SSPP attends negotiations with the junta.

Adding to the potential instability, TNLA and SSPP troops reportedly had a stand-off in April that also involved two ostensible allies, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and United Wa State Army.

Nilar Aung*, a spokesperson for the Tai Students’ Union, formed by Shan students from universities inside and outside Shan, said she was disappointed that the SSPP and TNLA have kept silent rather than opposing the dam projects.

“I don’t know if they’re benefitting from these projects, but they should be concerned about the potential loss of their territory once the forests are depleted. The negative impact of the projects may outweigh any potential benefits for them,” she told Frontier.

“We will do our best to drive these projects off our land. In Shan State, a river is called ‘mae’, which means ‘mother’. The people living along the rivers appreciate the benefits they receive from the river and believe that any alteration is the equivalent of harming their mother. So, they will oppose these projects at any cost.”

*denotes use of a pseudonym for security reasons

Correction: A previous version of this article referred to Natural Current Energy Hydropower Co Ltd as a Chinese company. It is in fact registered in Mandalay.

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