On a recent trip to Myanmar – also known as Burma – my eyes were opened to the strength of opposition to the Myitsone dam, the China-led scheme in the northern state of Kachin suspended last September after more than a year of construction.
Groups usually positioned against each other across ethnic, religious or political lines on this issue appear united. Burmese or Kachin; existing regime or opposition; religious or secular; Christian or Buddhist; pro-West, pro-military or pro-China political factions – almost all agree that the government was right to shelve the project at the source of the Irrawaddy River.
This is not to say that the dam, a project of China Power Investment Corporation (CPI), has no supporters whatsoever. After all, the junta, which governed the country in a military dictatorship from 1962 until the 2010 general election, was originally a firm advocate of the scheme. Indeed, it pushed not just for the Miyitsone dam, but for a cascade of seven hydropower plants on the Irawaddy River.
But anyone familiar with Burmese politics will know that the military government suffered periodic factional disputes throughout its rule, a dynamic that was crucial to kick-starting the current reform period. And, among those internal disagreements was a dispute over Myitsone.
Former head of state Than Shwe was replaced last year by the first civilian president in nearly 50 years, Thein Sein. Though the nominal civilian government is still backed by the military, Than Shwe has seen his clique undermined and its voice weakened. The general’s supporters have failed to speak out in favour of the Myitsone dam, and even state newspaper New Light of Myanmar has published criticisms of the scheme.
Kachin state, where the majority of residents are members of the Kachin ethnic group, is home to a strong, separatist movement, led by the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO). The organisation opposes the military-backed government and a de-facto state of war exists between the two parties. For many years, the KIO has acted as an autonomous local government, controlling most of the state, where it manages public order and economic development.
Unlike the NGO community, the KIO has in the past supported hydropower development. The KIO-governed Kachin State 2nd Special Region, for example, once turned to its only international neighbour, China, for help in this area. In fact, it was the KIO that first attracted Chinese investors to the region’s hydropower potential.
But the friendship didn’t last. Certain Chinese companies, preferring to cosy up to the more powerful Myanmar government, cast the KIO aside, causing the angry separatists to change their stance on several projects. A dam on the Tarpein River was one such scheme. The KIO had collaborated with China’s Datang Corporation on the project and provided some of the funding. But when the military government intervened, Datang changed allegiance, forcing the KIO out. In order to “protect the project”, government soldiers were dispatched to occupy the area around the dam, leaving the Kachin down on both land and money – and not at all happy about it.
In response, the KIO decided to obstruct the project, and the scheme is now paralysed. But it is important to note that the rebels are not opposed to a dam on the Tarpein itself, merely to the involvement of the Myanmar government.
The Myitsone Dam is a different case, however. While the KIO is by no means “anti-dam”, and was once keen to work with China on hydropower, it has never been in favour of the Myitsone project.
Even the Kachin faction closest to the Myanmar government opposes to the dam. The New Democratic Army-Kachin (NDA-K) turned itself from a communist militia into a “border guard force” under the aegis of the military government. Its former leader, Zahkung Tingying, suppressed internal dissent with junta help and ended up as nothing but a puppet of Than Shwe. But even he has never spoken out in favour of the Myitsone project, while other NDA-K figures have been explicit in their opposition. When I spoke to former deputy commander of the NDA-K Wu Maoyin [pinyin transliteration of Burmese name], he described the Myitsone Dam as the single largest source of public discontent with Chinese investment.
The Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) is an influential religious organisation in the region. I asked one of its senior members, Brother Kunsang, if there were cultural or religious reasons to oppose the dam, in addition to environmental and economic factors: “Obviously, being a Christian, I don’t believe there are any spirits residing at Myitsone. But as a Kachin, I see it as a symbol of our national spirit. That does not contradict my Christianity,” he said. “If the junta and Chinese companies come along and want to make money from it without even consulting us, of course I’ll object, even if it doesn’t damage the environment.”
Myanmar’s ethnic Chinese come from a range of backgrounds: some originate from the mainland, some from the Kuomintang army (many of whose ranks fled to Myanmar after being expelled from China by the Communists) and some are members of the ethnically Chinese Wa and Kokang groups. But there is a common thread: overall, Myanmar’s ethnic Chinese population is comparatively successful and rich. Its members prefer to keep their heads down and make money, rather than getting involved in politics.
The growth in trade between Myanmar and China has provided many ethnic Chinese with the chance to get wealthy, and they have not wasted these opportunities. The beneficiaries of these ties do whatever is necessary to maintain friendly relations with both the military government and China – and to keep a distance from anything the two governments might find objectionable. As a result, they are unlikely to discuss the Myitsone dam. When they do, however, they say it has not been handled well. Even members of the ethnic Chinese elite, who have the closest links with government, feel this way.
Li Zuqing, head of the Confucius Institute in Mandalay, is one example. He has always identified with China and approves of both the Chinese and Myanmar governments. But Li told me that, while he believes China has done many good things for Myanmar over the decades, the country has made “two clear mistakes”. One was encouraging ethnic Chinese students in Myanmar to become Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. The other is the Myitsone dam: “I don’t know whose stupid idea it was,” he said. “They could have built it anywhere, and they had to build it right where it would be most taboo.”
So why is the Myitsone dam so unpopular?
Opponents of the dam say it will damage the environment, impact fisheries, flood wide swaths of jungle and change the river flow downstream. And, since it is built on a geological fault, they argue it could collapse if an earthquake strikes.
There are good reasons for many of these concerns. But they also call for qualifying remarks.
First, this list of objections could apply to almost any dam. We cannot, however, rule out dam construction entirely. Instead, we need to work out the pros and the cons and identify suitable sites: if it isn’t possible to build one here, where is it possible? Where would the damage be smallest? Alternative proposals are needed. Certain environmental groups appear capable only of saying where dams cannot go – and not where they can. While these NGOs do have a role to play, we cannot rely solely on their advice about any specific project.
Second, some of the issues raised by opponents can be resolved through design changes, further investment or extra equipment. This doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing choice between the original proposal and no dam at all. Moreover, some of the problems flagged up are not as serious as they are made out to be. The main dam at Myitsone is designed as a concrete-face rock-fill dam, a type of barrage with a much shallower slope and wider base than arch or gravity dams, which rely on a steep narrow wall. Such dams are less prone to earthquake damage. Even if the Myitsone were damaged, there is virtually no chance of a sudden collapse; any failure would pan out over a period of time.
Third, opposition to dams can be contradictory. If the area to be flooded is sparsely-populated, it is described as a unique virgin ecosystem, which must not be touched. If it is densely populated, however, the problems of relocating local residents are played up. The outcome is that no matter what the population, the dam cannot be built. These two concerns need to be balanced.
Something else struck me during my visit to Kachin state: although environmental damage is the concern most prominently voiced by opponents to the dam, it is not the real reason they fight it.
Everywhere in Kachin, you see photos or paintings of Myitsone, the confluence of the Mail and N'Mai rivers and source of the Irrawaddy. The iconic image is visible in any public space and is a familiar sight even in non-Kachin areas (a “Myitsone Restaurant” near the Chinese embassy in Yangon is adorned with the image). It seems that Myitsone is to this region what Mount Fuji is to Japan or Mount Kumgang to North Korea: an emblem of the nation.
Why is this place so significant? Kachin legend has it that Father Dragon and his two sons, Hkrai Nawng and Hkrai Gam, were born here. Locals believe that, if the mountains are damaged, the dragons will awaken and bring disaster. Of course, many people don’t believe this, but the point is the Kachin do – and this is their land isn’t it?
Besides, there are historic reasons for considering this a special place. When the people of the Tibeto-Burman language family (which includes the Burmese and the Kachin) migrated south from the Tibetan plateau, this is where they entered the Irrawaddy valley, emerging from the precipitous mountains to found a new civilisation.
Even if you dismiss the legends, the Kachin have cause to revere Myitsone as the birthplace of their culture.
I wondered why the dam threatens this special status. “Myitsone will still be there, whether the dam is built or not. Won’t it still be sacred even if there is a new reservoir?” I asked Kata, a local writer.
No, said Kata. “We cannot accept this happening to Myitsone.” He paused. “It isn’t like Jerusalem or Mecca. We Kachin don’t have buildings as symbols of our faith; we revere Myitsone in its natural state. If there was a reservoir here, then it wouldn’t be Myitsone.
“If they have to create a reservoir, why does it have to be here? They didn’t even consult us. A few Burmese generals and Chinese bosses say do it, and it’s done?”
NEXT: a history of Chinese involvement
Part three: the risks of investment
Qin Hui is a professor of history at Tsinghua University.
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in The Economic Observer.
Translated by Roddy Flagg
Homepage image by Frédéric Gloor shows the Myitsone section of the Irrawaddy River.