The government of Myanmar is working to restart the controversial Myitsone dam project in Kachin state. It doesn’t bode well for the ongoing peace process.
Following Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s attendance at China’s Belt and Road Initiative forum on April 25, the government is working with Beijing to revive the Myitsone hydropower project. Myitsone is a Chinese-backed dam proposed for the Irrawaddy River that was suspended in September 2011 due to popular opposition.
Aung San Suu Kyi originally opposed the US$3.6 billion dam and supported a community campaign to stop the project due to its environmental and social impact. The opposition eventually caused then-president Thein Sein to suspend the 6,000 MW project.
Recently, Suu Kyi changed her rhetoric, encouraging local Kachin communities who would be impacted by the dam “to think [about the project] from a wider perspective.”
But local Kachin communities still oppose Myitsone – demonstrations against the dam drew thousands of supporters in February and again in April. However, China has continued its efforts to revive the project, claiming late last year that the Kachin population was supportive.
The Myanmar government is indicating that it may be willing to prioritize the dam, a key piece of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), over lasting peace and equitable development in Kachin.
Suu Kyi has shifted her stance on the economic, social and environmental disaster that is Myitsone
The dam site is located on the upper reaches of the Irrawaddy River, just south of the confluence of the Mali and N’Mai Rivers and 37 kilometres from Myitkyina, the Kachin capital. It’s one of at least seven Chinese-funded dams in the works in Kachin.
Though only 44% of people in Myanmar have access to electricity, 90% of the electricity produced by the dam would be exported to China. The dam would also require the forced relocation of around 15,000 people, according to the Kachin Development Network Group. A study by the Yangon School of Political Science in late 2016 indicated that 85% of Myanmar’s population were opposed the dam.
The International Finance Corporation (IFC) produced a strategic environmental assessment of Myanmar’s hydropower plans in 2018, of which Myitsone is a key part. The report found that current plans “would completely alter the river system’s hydrologic, sediment transport and geomorphic functioning… cut river connectivity, alter the flow regime and trap sediment at a basin scale, and affect regional coastal and marine ecosystems.”
Citing the social and environmental impacts of the project, local Kachin groups and national civil society are demanding the project be cancelled. Many members of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party have also expressed support for the local communities’ campaigns.
Though the facts haven’t changed, the Myanmar government is now moving towards restarting the project. A 20-member commission, chaired by Speaker of the Parliament U T Khun Myat, completed a report on all the dam projects on the Irrawaddy River in 2018 but the government has not released its contents.
Suu Kyi has now said that the final decision on the dam must be politically, socially, economically and environmentally sound and sustainable, but it’s unclear what the state counsellor means by this.
“It will be very difficult for Kachin people if the NLD Government agrees [to build the dam], as there will be multiple faces to confront: China, the NLD Government, those who support the NLD’s decision, and possibly the Tatmadaw and forces who will provide security for the dam construction and transportation of materials for construction,” Khon Ja, spokesperson for Kachin Peace Network, a civil society organization, told ASEAN Today. “There is a lot of potential that anti-Myitsone Dam people will face a lot of legal persecution.”
A Chinese-driven peace process, with Myitsone at its centre, is guaranteed to inflame
The dam has become a flashpoint in the continued conflict in Kachin between ethnic armed groups and the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar military). The Tatmadaw has worked with the developer of the dam, China Power Investment Corporation (CPIC), to secure the dam site and increase troop presence in Kachin territory. This expanded troop presence contributed to the outbreak of violence in early 2011, before the Thein Sen government suspended the dam. Many Kachin residents perceive Myitsone as a damaging threat to their territory.
Reverend Marip Bawk San is a Kachin pastor from Njut Lung Kachin Baptist Church in Aung Min Thar village and was forcibly relocated in preparation for the dam. Reverend Marip says that the project would erase “my native village, my native land. It is a historical, valuable place for Kachin people and it is our natural heritage.”
Attempts to push ahead with Myitsone don’t bode well for the peace process.
“If the Myanmar government revives the Myitsone dam, groups such as the Kachin Independence Organisation’s [KIO] strong opposition, along with other ethnic groups, may trigger new conflicts,” K. Yhome, Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, told ASEAN Today. “This will further complicate the peace process and the democratization process with grave consequences on the country’s political future.”
Beijing has been actively working to sway public opinion in Kachin. Shortly after Thein Sein suspended the project, CPIC launched a public relations campaign in Kachin State.
In late 2018, Chinese Ambassador Hong Liang visited Kachin State. He claimed that the Kachin people support the Myitsone project. Kachin leaders have rejected the claim, insisting that local opposition is as strong as ever. Chinese officials are also pressuring leaders of the influential Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) to support the project.
Beijing is using its growing role in peace negotiations to push ethnic armed groups in Kachin to resolve conflicts with the Tatmadaw quickly and without preconditions. It hosted a round of peace talks in early 2013 where, as host, the Chinese government was able to determine which groups attended and what would be recorded in the minutes – humanitarian aid and ceasefire monitoring, for example, were kept off of the official record.
“The Chinese were very aggressive in pushing for us to sit down. They kept insisting on a cease-fire before any conditions,” said Dau Hka, a KIO spokesman, of the 2013 talks. “They really wanted to see the conflict finished — especially under their watch. They warned us not to invite America, England, or the United Nations. They wanted to make sure it was all arranged under Chinese eyes.”
As the 2015 elections approached, China used its relationships with ethnic armed groups including the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) to build ties with the NLD. China also supported peace talks in late 2016 and in early 2017, its government offered US$3 million to fund another round of peace talks with the KIA, the armed wing of the KIO.
The Myanmar military seems happy to let China increase its involvement in the Kachin peace process, especially as international pressure over the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya has pushed Myanmar away from Western allies. A chief general in the Tatmadaw is championing the BRI ahead of Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to Beijing, claiming it will benefit the rural poor.
China’s outreach to groups in Kachin is logical, as the state is key to the BRI: China is developing a US$3 million industrial zone on 4,751 acres in Myitkyina and a US$5 million economic cooperation zone in Kanpiketi, a town in the state’s Special Region 1, which is controlled by the New Democratic Army-Kachin.
However, the roadmap for the peace process shouldn’t be tied to a destructive dam that brings little benefit to local communities. The communities themselves, as well as international development experts and scientists, are speaking out against it. The Myanmar government must realise that as long as China is pushing Myitsone on the Kachin population without their consent and cooperation, Beijing’s involvement in the Kachin peace process will only derail it.