MYITSONE DAM: THE UNPOPULAR CHINA-BACKED PROJECT AND ITS SUSPENSION

MYITSONE DAM

The $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam is located at the headwaters of Burma’s largest river, the Irrawaddy. Standing 500-feet-tall and located in Kachin state in northeast Myanmar, not far from China, the hydroelectric dam is the the first—and biggest—of seven dams slated to be built. Part of a joint venture between China Power Investment (CPI) and Myanmar's regime-friendly Asia World, the Myitsone Dam is expected to have a generating capacity of 6,000 megawatts of electricity, more than the country as a whole now produces. [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, August 2011]

The Chinese-financed initiative to build the dam was approved by the Myanmar government on the grounds that electricity and revenues it generated would improve livelihoods in an isolated region of Myanmar with poor infrastructure and few economic prospects. Under the scheme 90 percent of electricity generated from it would go across the border to China's southwestern Yunnan province in exchange for $17 billion over a 50-year period. [Source: Jason Motlagh, Washington Post, July 14, 2012]

Scheduled to be completed in 2019 before the project was suspended in November 2011, Myitsone Dam would have created a reservoir some 766 square kilometers (296 square miles)— an area slightly bigger than Singapore.

See Separate Article: DAMS IN MYANMAR, THE SALWEEN RIVER AND ABUSES AT AN INDIA-BACKED DAM

China and the Myitsone Dam

The Myitsone Dam has been designed to pump electricity almost exclusively into China’s power grid, despite the fact that Burma suffers daily power outages. The State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of China’s State Council has hailed the dam as a model overseas project serving Chinese interests. Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post: “As the world’s biggest consumer of energy, China has hunted far and wide in recent years for sources of power — and of profit — for state-owned corporate behemoths such as CPI. The result is a web of deals with often-repressive regimes, from oil-rich African autocracies such as Sudan and Angola to river-rich Burma. Chinese-built dams in Laos and especially Burma will pump electricity into China’s power grid. The dams under construction by CPI on Burma’s Irrawaddy River and its tributaries would, if completed, be capable of generating roughly as much electricity as China’s gigantic Three Gorges Dam. Ninety percent of that energy would go to China. [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, November 7, 2011 :::]

“CPI has reacted angrily to assertions that the project will benefit mainly China. “People who hold such a wrong viewpoint either don’t understand the situation or have ulterior motives,” Lu Qizhou, the company’s Beijing-based Communist Party secretary and president, said. He cited hundreds of miles of new roads, better flood control and other benefits for Burma. But China’s own government, in an August 2011 report by the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, hailed CPI’s Burma venture as a model of party-led overseas expansion in pursuit of Chinese interests. The report noted that the dam project “principally serves our nation’s southern power grid” in a national strategy to boost electricity supplies to boom towns in China’s east. :::

“CPI said that Burma’s market is not big enough to “digest all the electricity” due to be generated. A CPI-commissioned study of the environmental and social consequences of the project acknowledged “some unavoidable adverse impact” but said that overall, it would have “significant benefits in terms of society, economy and the environment.” It blamed opposition to the project on “fake propaganda by partial organizations.” The company’s secrecy also stirred suspicions in Burma. But it won plaudits in Beijing. The report by China’s state-owned assets agency praised CPI’s Communist Party units for their “closed management” and described the project site as “an isolated island floating above the national soil of Burma.” :::

Environmental Costs of the Myitsone Dam

Environmentalists warned that the Myitsone dam project would disrupt the flow of the Irrawaddy River, inundate an area about the size of Singapore, submerging dozens of villages, displacing at least 10,000 people and irreversibly damaging one of the world's most biodiverse areas. The site of the dam is in an area of rich biodiversity, less than 100 kilometers from a tectonic fault line. According to the BBC “Myitsone was a huge construction project in an environmentally sensitive, earthquake-prone area.” Leaders in Kachin State say that residents have been forced out, and after the left a host of private mining and timber companies connected to powerful northern military commanders moved in.

Jason Motlagh wrote in the Washington Post, “Rapid deforestation, unregulated mining and erosion have taken a heavy toll on the Irrawaddy ecosystem, according to Burmese activists and environmental watchdogs. They fear that if the dam project moves forward, the impact will extend far beyond the project site, to communities downstream that rely on the river flow and adequate nutrients to sustain the rice production on which the country depends. [Source: Jason Motlagh, Washington Post, July 14, 2012]

Rachel Harvey of the BBC wrote: “There is no legal obligation in Burma to conduct any assessment, though CPI did commission a study by Chinese and Burmese experts. The report has not been made public, but parts have been leaked to activists. It is understood to have recommended two smaller dams be built instead of one, but that advice was ignored. According to Grace Mang, from lobby group International Rivers, the CPI instead said it would study the impact of the dam during its construction. "The whole point of conducting an impact assessment is to prevent or mitigate impacts before they occur," she said. "If it's found that the environmental or social impact is unacceptable, then the project shouldn't be going ahead." [Source: Rachel Harvey, BBC, September 30, 2011]

Kachin People Displaced by the Myitsone Dam

For the ethnic Kachin people of Kachin State, the Myitsone dam has come to symbolise the struggles they have faced for decades as a marginalised ethnic group. The Myitsone Dame it will flood an area larger than New York City, wiping out dozens of villages, where members of the Kachin minority lives. Places that halfway up large hills will be underwater if the present plan for the dam goes through. Villagers near the dam have been ordered to leave their homes and move to “model new village,” described the Washington Post as a treeless expanse of newly built houses. Each family received a color TV set, rice rations and a steady supply of electricity for several hours a day, something unavailable in their previous villages. One resident told the Post, “nobody wants to live here. Everyone wants to go back home.”

Jason Motlagh wrote in the Washington Post, “In 2010 authorities in Myanmar began forcibly relocating thousands of ethnic Kachin to clear the way for the hydroelectric dam. Myanmar's state-run media initially reported that more than 2,100 people from five villages would be moved to "model villages" and given new houses equipped with running water and electricity. On a website launched as part of a public-relations campaign, the Chinese company says it has so far invested $25 million in the resettlement while "fully respecting the desires of the project-affected people." [Source: Jason Motlagh, Washington Post, July 14, 2012 <<>>]

“Critics dispute these claims. In an August 2011 letter to the government, Aung San Suu Kyi said 12,000 ethnic Kachin from more than 60 villages have been divorced from their homes and traditional way of life. She warned that the Myitsone project poses serious environmental risks, made worse by nearby fault lines that "raise the specter of horrendous devastation" in the event of an earthquake. <<>>

Less than an hour's drive north of the dam, scores of Kachin evicted by the Myitsone project live in a sprawling Chinese-sponsored resettlement camp ringed by fences. Row after row of wood and tin-roofed homes are interspersed with community buildings, including a meditation center, a health clinic and a new high school. But residents say they lack what is needed most: freedom of movement. "We are stuck here with nothing to do; I am a farmer without land," said Mung Doi, 35, who sneaked back to his village despite being forbidden to do so, only to return to camp when Myanmar troops and guerrillas exchanged fire in the area. Farther along the road to Myitsone, Kachin villages lie derelict, with scattered trash and broken fences suggesting a hasty departure. Between the empty clusters of homes, gold mining operations have turned former rice paddies into heaps of upturned earth; dense teak forests in the surrounding hills have been reduced to stumps. <<>>

Anger Over the Myitsone Dam

Even though thousands of local villagers had already been resettled to make way for the dam and thousands more were scheduled to be moveed as the project developed, there was no public consultation. Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, “Anger about the dam reverberates far beyond Tang Hpre,” the settlement nearest the planed dam, "The dam has become a rallying cry for the Kachin people," says Brig. Gen. Gun Maw of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), a rebel group whose 17-year-old cease-fire with the Burmese government began unraveling late last year. Along with soldiers from other ethnic groups, the KIA has resisted the regime's demand that it reform itself into a border-defense force under Burmese military command. The dam controversy only fuels the rising tension. "For months we've been asking Burmese authorities to clarify where the electricity will go, but we've received no reply," the 49-year-old rebel chief says. "I think we all know. China is very hungry for electric power." Indeed, according to a CPI document, most of the electricity will go directly to China. [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, August 2011 >><<]

“For the past year and a half the Burmese government has been demanding that Tang Hpre's 1,400 villagers move to a new settlement ten miles away to make way for the dam. Defiance has been virtually unanimous. Last year a series of bomb blasts hit dam-related sites across the valley, forcing several hundred Chinese workers to evacuate and delaying the project. The authorities arrested 70 Kachin youths in connection with the bombings. The woman in the bamboo hat insists that her resistance is nonviolent. "The government tells us not to fix up our homes, to let them crumble," she says. "But no, that only makes us determined to make them more beautiful than ever, to show that we will not move, even under threat of death." >><<

“Down on the bank of the Ayeyarwady, she peers into a deep pit of sand and rock. Her mission today is not to pray or protest but to join the search for gold. "Try over here," she instructs a Kachin teenager blasting the sand bank with a hose, as youngsters shovel the loosened sand onto an inclined ramp. Over the past few months villagers have noticed more boats full of Burmese and Chinese workers heading upriver to dredge for gold. She wonders if Tang Hpre's forced resettlement is a ploy to let the Chinese control another of the Kachins' precious resources. "We don't want to lose our home," she says. "But we need to get as much gold as we can before the Chinese come and the waters rise. This is ours." >><<

Protests Over the Myitsone Dam

According to Time magazine; “Ethnic Kachins, who have long chafed under the repressive rule of the junta, have nothing good to say about the proposed dam. Not only will it flood thousands of homes it will flood the confluence of two rivers that holds revered status in Kachin lore, Kachin preachers — the population is majority Christian — have led a spirited non-violent resistance to the dam, sending letters to various ministries and holding seminars on hydropower's devastating environmental impact.

Andrew Higgins wrote in Washington Post, At the Myitsone the site “protests began even before construction. Local Kachins, many of whom want their own state and have a long history of battling the military, resisted forced resettlement and accused CPI of colluding with Burmese troops. In October 2009, the Kachin Development Networking Group, an opposition group, sent an open letter to CPI demanding that it halt the project “to avoid being complicit in multiple serious human rights abuses associated with the project.” [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, November 7, 2011 :::]

“Christian Kachins held prayer meetings, calling for divine intervention against CPI. “We prayed that God will favor the right and defeat the wrong,” said Dai Lum, secretary of the Church of Zion in Myitkyina, the regional capital. U.S. diplomats, in a January 2010 cable released by WikiLeaks, noted with surprise the “growing strength of civil society groups.” Some of these, according to the cable, had received “small grants” from the U.S. Embassy. :::

“China, Burma’s biggest foreign investor, still had far more pull.Villagers in Tanphre, were ordered to leave their homes and move to “a model new village,” a treeless expanse of newly built houses. Each family received a color TV set, rice rations and a steady supply of electricity for several hours a day, something unavailable in Tanphre. But, said one resident who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, “nobody wants to live here. Everyone wants to go back home.”

Kachin Rebels and the Myitsone Dam

The Myanmar army attacked territory controlled by the rebel Kachin Independence Army near contested dam sites on the Taping River. According to Human Rights Watch, both sides acknowledge that the fighting broke out partly because of the Myitsone dam projects. The rebels say that on top of the environmental and displacement issues the dam violates native rights on territory that historically belonged to them.

Tensions increased after a series of bomb blasts in April 2011 at the site of the Myitsone Dam destroyed cars and buildings and left one man wounded and may have possibly killed some Chinese workers. Burmese authorities blamed the bombings on Kachin separatists. The rebels denied involvement. The attacks, coupled with a surge in clashes between Burmese troops and rebels, spooked the Chinese, and some workers left for home. In August 2011 state media accused ethnic fighters of shooting dead seven people, including civilian workers, at a different Chinese-run dam. [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, November 7, 2011]

See Kachin Under Minorities

Outcry Over the Myitsone Dam from the General Burmese Public

By the summer of 2011, Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post, “local anger had swelled into a national movement, assisted by a relaxing of rigid media control by government censors. Previously cowed journalists, emboldened by the new mood, denounced the dams and China’s tightening grip on Burma’s economy. Artists, poets and opposition activists joined, their voice amplified by Facebook and exile Web sites. At stake, said Tin Oo, a former military commander who is vice chairman of the National League for Democracy, was not only the fate of the Irrawaddy, but also whether Burma would become “not just China’s satellite state but China’s vassal state.” [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, November 7, 2011 :::]

“Eleven Media, a private Burmese media group that had focused mostly on sports and other safe topics, embraced the anti-dam cause. Its chairman, Than Htut Aung, said that he “didn’t want to ignite anti-Chinese sentiment” but only wanted to make clear to China and Burma’s new government that if the project went ahead, “there would be an uprising.” Aung San Suu Kyi then threw her moral weight behind dam critics. She wrote an open letter calling on authorities to reconsider CPI’s project and appeared at a Rangoon art gallery for an exhibition of pictures celebrating the Irrawaddy. :::

“After months of ignoring the clamor, CPI set up a Web site, www.uachc.com, to give its side of the story and finally released a previously secret environmental impact study. The Web site featured photos of new homes, a new hospital, a new church and monastery, and new roads. The head of CPI’s Yunnan branch, meanwhile, traveled to Naypyidaw to explain that the dams would provide jobs, “boost the rapid development of the local economy” and give Burma some electricity “free of charge.” The Chinese Embassy sponsored a supplement in a Rangoon newspaper and trumpeted Chinese investment: “Yes to Corporate Social Responsibility!” It was too late.” :::

Suspension of the Myitsone Dam

In late September 2011, Myanmar President Thein Sein sent a letter to the Myanmar parliament, announcing that, because of “public concerns,” he was suspending the Myitsone dam project. Caught by surprise despite increasingly loud alarm bells, CPI’s boss in Beijing declared: “I was totally astonished.”

Hla Hla Htay of AFP wrote: “Myanmar's president ordered a halt to construction of a controversial $3.6 billion mega dam following rare public opposition to the Chinese-backed hydropower project. Opposition to the Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy River has been building as pro-democracy and environmental activists test the limits of their freedom under the new nominally civilian regime. [Source: Hla Hla Htay, AFP, September 30, 2011]

President Thein Sein, whose government has recently shown signs of reaching out to its opponents, said in a message to parliament in the capital Naypyidaw that work on the project in northern Kachin state would be suspended. "We have to respect the will of the people as our government is elected by the people," he said. "We have a responsibility to solve the worries of the people so we will stop construction of the Myitsone Dam during our current government." In March Myanmar's junta handed power to a new government whose ranks are filled with former generals. Aung San Suu Kyi is among those welcomed the suspension. "It's good to listen to the people's voice. That's what all governments should do," Suu Kyi told reporters. There was "a growing consciousness of the need to protect the Irrawaddy...It's something that we're all concerned about because the Irrawaddy is very important for the whole country, economically, geographically, ecologically and emotionally."

Police earlier arrested a man who staged a rare solo protest against the project outside a Chinese embassy building in Yangon. They also blocked a rally by people seeking an end to the Myitsone project. Protests are rare in authoritarian Myanmar, where pro-democracy rallies in 1988 and 2007 were brutally crushed by the junta. Thein Sein’s announcement marked an unexpected U-turn by the regime. Local media had quoted the minister for electric power as saying earlier in September that construction of the dam would go ahead despite public concerns.

Activists urged China Power Investment Corp. to remove workers and equipment from the site and to allow local villagers who were forced to relocate to go home. The Burma Rivers Network, a network of groups representing dam-affected communities, also called for six other mega dams planned on the Irrawaddy's tributaries to be scrapped. "Building these six dams will also cause irreparable environmental destruction, unpredictable water surges and shortages, and inflict social and economic damage to the millions who depend on the Irrawaddy. Thousands of Kachin villagers will also be forced to relocate," it said in a statement.

Why the Myitsone Dam was Suspended

Both cultural and political miscalculations may have to the projects demise. Thant Myint-U, author of “Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia,” told the BBC, “There's a widespread perception that China has taken advantage of Burma's situation over these past decades. Burma can benefit enormously from Chinese trade and investment, but there is almost bound to be a backlash if Chinese projects are undertaken with zero transparency and little concern for their impact on local communities."[Source: Rachel Harvey, BBC, September 30, 2011 ++]

The BBC reported: “Myitsone dam resonated well beyond the conservationist or Kachin communities because of its location, at the birthplace of the Irrawaddy. Myitsone was being built at the head of the Irrawaddy— the confluence of the Mali and N'Mai rivers— in Kachin state. "The Irrawaddy is the Burmese people's heritage, lifeline and civilisation," said Aung Zaw, editor of the Irrawaddy news website. "Everyone feels attached to it. That's the reason the campaign [against the dam] gained such support." Outside Burma, activists from both environmental and human rights groups threw their weight behind the campaign. As Grace Mang put it: "They are flooding, quite literally, the birthplace of Burma. That's why so many are opposed." ++

“Despite the fact that the man responsible for the project, Burma's minister of electric power, Zaw Min, only recently vowed that "we will never back down", other government figures began to waver. A diplomatic source based in Rangoon told the BBC: "There are signs of increasing unease among some ministers in Nay Pyi Taw. Maybe some political leaders do not want their legacy to be one of irreparable damage to the Irrawaddy." This is, after all, a government that has been trying hard to convince a sceptical public at home and abroad that it is different from its military predecessor and serious about reform. Speaking ahead of the announcement that the Myitsone project was to be put on ice, Burmese author Thant Myint-U put forward the view that the dam could be a perfect opportunity for the new administration to prove itself. "Suspending work on the dam would be the best sign so far that the new government is serious about taking popular concerns into account." ++

Shock in China Over the the Myitsone Dam Suspension

The decision to suspend the Myitsome dam project shocked China’s government, which had begun treating Burma as a reliable client state. CPI declined to say whether it had halted work at Myitsone, as demanded by the Myanmar president, saying only that “we are negotiating on the relevant issues” with the Myanmar government. On visits to Beijing Myanmar’s foreign minister and vice president were reportedly told by senior Chinese officials that Burma should honor its commitments to CPI.

Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post, “After five years of cozy cooperation with Burma’s ruling generals, CPI got a shock in September when it sent a senior executive to Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s new capital. Armed with a slick PowerPoint presentation and promises of $20 billion in investment, Li Guanghua pitched “an excellent opportunity,” a mammoth, Chinese-funded hydropower project in Burma’s far north. Then came the questions: What about the risk of earthquakes, ecological damage and all the people whose homes would be flooded? Is it true that most of the electricity would go to China? Two weeks later Myanmar scrapped the cornerstone of the project— Myitsone Dam. [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, November 7, 2011 :::]

The deluge threatens not only hundreds of millions of dollars already spent but also China’s intimate ties to what had been a reliably authoritarian partner, its only East Asian ally other than North Korea. CPI “thought that making an agreement with the regime is good enough. They don’t realize that the circumstances have changed,” said Ko Tar, a Burmese writer and anti-dam activist who traveled to Myitsone early this year. He has since rallied opposition to a project that he says shows China is “only concerned with its own energy needs, not with Burma’s ecological needs. :::

Suspension of Myitsone Dam: What It Means and Worries It May Be Started Up Again

Rachel Harvey of the BBC reported: The government will point to this decision as concrete evidence of its willingness to listen and to work in the interests of the people. Its critics will interpret the move as a cynical piece of public relations which can easily be reversed - the Myitsone project has, after all, only been suspended, not cancelled. Aung Zaw thinks the suspension of the Myitsone project may encourage Burma's long-suffering activists. "It is a bold decision to stand up against China but there are several dams [due to] be built along the Irrawaddy," he said. "What about other mega-projects with China, including the gas pipeline? I predict there will be more campaigns in the future." [Source: Rachel Harvey, BBC, September 30, 2011 ++]

Brahma Chellaney wrote in the Christian Science Monitor, “In canceling a $3.6 billion Myitsone hydro-electric project, the Burmese government surprised most observers, even though Chinese analysts were quick to express understanding of the government’s desire not to be seen as wholly subservient to a much more powerful neighbor. But the signal is clear: Myanmar is not a Chinese vassal state, and is willing to diversify its foreign relations. Economics can always open political doors. “That Myanmar could defy the Chinese,” wrote Indian scholar Sreeram Chaulia, “is being seen as a sign that political space exists for the US to work as a facilitator of the democratization process in Myanmar. [Source: Brahma Chellaney, Christian Science Monitor, December 2, 2011]

Jason Motlagh wrote in the Washington Post: “President Thein Sein's decision to suspend the project was seen as a blow to China, the former military regime's main patron, and a sign that democracy might finally be taking hold in a land where opposition groups have had little room to breathe, let alone effect change. Analysts speculated that it might also be another signal of Myanmar's shift from China's orbit toward the West. In the months since, fast-track political and economic reforms have warmed the country's relations with the United States and the European Union. [Source: Jason Motlagh, Washington Post, July 14, 2012 <<>>]

“Activists now worry that Chinese leverage will succeed in restarting the project, threatening a fragile ecosystem and The Chinese, meanwhile, are lobbying hard to resume construction, and there's a gathering sense among Kachin residents that they will ultimately get their way. Rai Aung, the parish priest, is convinced it's just a matter of time. In his view, the war with the Kachin rebels has delayed construction, but he doubts that the president has enough political clout to thwart the interests of generals who still call the shots in the backcountry "I'm waiting for the water to come, then I will leave for good," he said. <<>>

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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