POLICY BRIEF: “Rights and Rites:” Approaching the Issue of Justice for the Salween River

Publication date: September 2017

Author: Saw John Bright

Download the policy brief here.

Visit our MK31 Salween Fellowship project page on water governance here.


The Salween River is valuable for the livelihoods and culture of millions of ethnic people living along it. Hatgyi Dam is one of the five dams that is planned to be built in Karen State, Myanmar. Situated in an armed conflict area, the dam is not only challenging the livelihoods and culture of the local people but is also being seriously affected by decades of violent conflict resulting in human rights violations and mass displacement of civilians. There are questions of community involvement in the decision-making processes regarding the dam project, and therefore a constructive response is needed for justice in water governance on the Salween River.

Drawing from recent research on the Hatgyi Dam, this policy brief applies the concepts of "Rights" and "Rites" to examine community expectations and decision-making processes towards the project. The “Rights-Based Approach” is a formalized and legalistic approach normally recognized by the state, while the “Rites-Based Approach” is a locally defined natural resource management approach which is centered around cultural norms and local knowledge. The objective is to show how both approaches of “Rights and Rites" could help contribute towards inclusive decision-making and address concerns about injustice. The issue of justice is not yet fully considered in the current development policy agenda for water governance in Myanmar, and decision-making over the Salween dams to date has been highly centralized without community participation. Within the opportunities provided by Myanmar’s current political context, "Rights" and "Rites" approaches towards water governance policy in Myanmar could contribute positively towards inclusive decision-making in order to address the issue of justice in water governance for the Salween River.