The sobering, but excellent book Cadillac Desert  shows how the United States, through its attempts to control nature, fill its empty and barren west, and harness the energy capacity of its rivers, dramatically shaped population patterns, bringing people to an arid west dependent on irregular patterns of rain and rivers that are overtaxed (like the Colorado and many lesser ones). Nonetheless, the United States is not the only nation with a massive political-environmental water problem in its hands. Far from it. Today I would like to talk a little bit about Burma’s Cadillac Jungle, a case where a nation has deliberately used hydroelectric projects to engage in a systematic depopulation of its restive peripheries, leading to insurgencies and refugee crises in its neighbors, who themselves bear part of the blame in the matter.
We owe a debt of gratitude to the National Geographic for mapping  how Burma has had its natural resources exploited by its neighbors (like China and Thailand) who are voraciously hungry for cheap energy (from oil and hydroelectric sources), and how Burma has deliberately sought to attack its restive peripheries to secure the sites for dams and pipelines, areas that have led to conflicts with native insurgency groups like the Kachin Independence Army (and others) looking for greater autonomy or outright independence. Burma’s internal military actions have led to an explosion of refugees into Thailand (some of whom I know personally), which complains about taking care of the refugees but enjoys the cheap energy as well as the cheap labor source provided by those same refugees.
As usual, Asian Correspondent offers a very pointed analysis of this connection between the desire for Burma to exploit energy sources on behalf of other nations willing to pay for their resources (like China and Thailand) while simultaneously allowing it to make war on its own minority populations . Burma comes off looking like Sudan in its hostile warfare against its own peoples driven by Chinese money looking for cheap energy. A lot of people bear responsibility in this matter. As is common in these situations, foreign nations or national elites gain the wealth that comes from energy and hydroelectric projects, Burma forces its own citizens to work (probably in corvee labor) to build these projects, and it is the same minority populations that have to bear the costs of lost lands and environmental damage for generations. For the Burmese, it sounds like a win-win proposition.
Small wonder, therefore, that Burma’s efforts to manage its energy resources in such a fashion has led to internal conflicts in the Shan State and in the Kachin State, as well as in the Karen State. When a corrupt and predatory state simultaneously attacks and exploits its own people and then loots their resources to sell at low prices to other corrupt nations (like China), we begin to see just how deep the wickedness spreads. For while Burma is certainly a corrupt nation, it is hardly the only one whose actions are unacceptable.
Burma could not make a Cadillac Jungle out of its minority regions without a lot of help—and as there are a lot of nations looking for cheap energy around the world, and unwilling or unable to develop the energy at home, such help is all too easily provided. We are all implicated in such matters, either because we desire (not unreasonably) to pay as low for our energy needs as we can, and are not inclined to look too closely at the ways in which that energy is obtained from other nations, or the behavior of those governments towards their own people, or because we are unwilling to bear the risks or the payments of exploiting our own energy resources ourselves, and so we outsource those risks to those nations whose poverty and lower state of development makes them more willing to bear such risks, especially if those lesser elites can profit while making their own internal enemies bear the heavy costs. That’s life in Burma’s Cadillac Jungle.