‘Leave our country,’ locals tell international firms involved in Myanmar junta hydropower projects

Two European firms collectively secured nearly US$6 million in revenue for consulting work on hydropower dams in Myanmar under the junta, according to a report released by activist group Justice for Myanmar (JFM) on Tuesday.

Citing leaked tax filings, JFM implicated the Swiss branch of AFRY AB—a Swedish public company—as well as the Myanmar office of the ILF Group, based in Austria, for accepting $4.68m and $1.1m, respectively, in payments from a department within the junta-controlled electricity ministry since the February 2021 coup. 

Tuesday’s report said that the fees collected by AFRY and the ILF Group were for advisory work done on multiple dams since the military’s seizure of power, continuing business agreements forged during the administration of the elected National League for Democracy government, which was ousted in the coup. The hydropower projects in question have long been opposed by the public for their devastating effects on the environment, human rights and local livelihoods.

The leaked documents, some of which were shared by the whistleblower site Distributed Denial of Secrets, revealed that AFRY received around $2.6m for their work related to the massive 280-megawatt Upper Yeywa dam along the Namtu (Myitnge) River in Kyaukme Township, northern Shan State, as well as some $2.07m from their involvement in the 152-megawatt Middle Paunglaung dam in Naypyitaw. ILF Group’s funds, last transferred in April 2022, were reportedly for work on the Tha Htay Chaung dam in Thandwe Township, Rakhine State. 

AFRY, which received payments until last September, told JFM that they had ongoing projects in the country, but did not provide further details. 

On Tuesday—which was also the International Day of Action for Rivers—the Namtu River Protectors, a grassroots environmental and human rights alliance, released a petition calling for the withdrawal of all foreign firms from the Upper Yeywa, citing “ongoing conflict and [Myanmar army] abuses in areas surrounding the dam site.” The group also confirmed AFRY’s continued involvement in the project, and highlighted the exit of several other companies from additional dams on the river since the coup. 

In its petition, Namtu River Protectors said it was “unconscionable” for international companies “to shut their eyes to these atrocities and continue partnering with the murderous military regime to exploit [Myanmar’s] natural resources against the wishes of local communities.” 

Started in 2008, the Upper Yeywa is a joint operation between French engineering firm Razel-Bec and its local partner, International Power Group (IPG), working together under the name IPGRB. IPG is a subsidiary of the International Group of Entrepreneurs, founded by the sons of ex-general Aung Thaung, who was targeted by US sanctions in 2014. 

Namtu River Protectors also named China’s Zhejiang Orient Engineering Company and Japan’s Toshiba Hydro Power on Tuesday as being involved in the project. 

Describing current conditions as lacking “responsibility, accountability and transparency,” network spokesperson Nang Mo Hsai told Myanmar Now that these companies should “leave our country.”

“The Upper Yeywa dam will only benefit the military and allow them to keep violating our human rights,” Nang Mo Hsai said on Tuesday, noting that the impacts on the area’s population were “only negative.”

The project made news in February when it was revealed that the dam was due to be completed later this year. Citing a letter from local junta authorities, Namtu River Protectors said that some 40,000 residents of around 100 villages were threatened with displacement by the dam’s massive flood zone. 

Junta-aligned media recently reported that the Upper Yeywa, which the regime’s electricity minister Thaung Han visited on March 7, was “53.22 percent complete.”

Nang Mo Hsai told Myanmar Now that experimental electricity generation is believed to have already begun at the site. 

JFM spokesperson Yadanar Maung affirmed that the European consulting firms named in the group’s own report had “disregarded the voices of local communities and their international human rights responsibilities by carrying out business as usual with war criminals.”

“These dams displace communities, destroy livelihoods and harm Myanmar’s rivers, while emboldening an illegal military junta attempting to use infrastructure to gain control of territory,” she said. 

While ILF Group told JFM that its activities in Myanmar had “discontinued some time ago,” the activist group demanded that AFRY halt any ongoing engagement with the junta, whose troops have killed more than 3,100 people since the coup and arrested tens of thousands more, according to local monitoring group the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. 

JFM also recommended that both AFRY and ILF Group “remediate damage already incurred” in line with guidelines on business and human rights provided by the UN and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. 

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