With China’s multi-billion dollar “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) at stake, China’s aggressive pursuit of the resumption of Myitsone dam and its attempts to secure its border areas is further negatively impacting ethnic communities in Myanmar, particularly those who continue to suffer the consequences of the decades long armed conflict.
Renewed concerns regarding the resumption of the Myitsone dam – suspended in 2011 due to vehement opposition from local communities and people across Myanmar – have resurfaced as the Chinese Ambassador, Hong Liang, dispensed threats and warnings against Rev. Hkalam Samson, the General Secretary of the Kachin Baptist Convention and the leader of the Kachin Democratic Party, Gumgrawng Awng Hkam. The ambassador warned them against opposing the dam, while also stating that they “would face serious consequences” if they continued to further their communications with western diplomats.
To make matters worse, the Chinese embassy made a follow up statement regarding their recent visit, misquoting and misconstruing the meeting with the Kachin leaders stating that the Kachin political leaders and social organizations displayed “positive attitudes” towards the dam, insisting that “local people of Kachin State do not oppose the Myitsone hydropower project; it is some individuals and social organizations from outside that oppose the project.” In response, Kachin political parties and General Secretary of the Kachin Baptist Convention, Rev. Hkalam Samson issued a statement refuting China’s claims, and reiterated their concerns and opposition to the resumption of the dam.
The stalled $3.6 billion Chinese-financed Myitsone dam located in Kachin State would be the first dam of its scale on the Irrawaddy River – a river that represents a mythic cradle of civilization, not only for the Kachin community but also for other ethnic communities in Myanmar. The dam could potentially flood an area the size of Singapore in Kachin State, displacing around 10,000 people, while effectively killing the life of the Irrawaddy River. This would put the security of the millions of people who depend on its large commercial waterways for survival at risk, not to mention the destruction of the ecosystem and habitats that depend on the existence of the river, while also destroying culture and history in the process.
The cunning misrepresentation of Kachin community leaders by the embassy raised suspicions that the Chinese government is sowing divisions between ethnic communities, as many ethnic Burman majority became increasingly concerned that the local Kachin community’s support for the dam may lead to its resumption. The cohesion of ethnic communities in the fierce campaign against the construction of the dam, which began with protests in Kachin State in 2009 and gained momentum throughout the country in 2010, has been crucial in pushing the previous military backed government under President Thein Sein to postpone the project in 2011. While Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in the past has vehemently opposed the project, the National League for Democracy-led government has remained silent on its possible termination.
While the Myitsone dam is not publicly linked to China’s multi-billion dollar BRI, it is high on the list of priority projects for the Chinese government as 90 percent of the electricity produced from the hydropower energy would be exported to China. The energy would supply electricity to Yunnan where the proposed Myanmar-China Economic Corridor, which is part of the BRI, could feasibly begin. The BRI projects crosses several active conflict areas controlled by ethnic armed organizations, including areas controlled by the Kachin Independence Organization and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). The TNLA recently urged China to consult them on a railway project, which is currently being assessed for feasibility. The BRI projects also run through Rakhine State where most recently, fighting between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar military have displeased an estimated 5,000 civilians.
China is acting swiftly and aggressively in moving to secure its ambitious project by seizing the opportunity of the temporary suspension of military operations recently announced by the Myanmar military. Reportedly, the Myanmar military have been quick to breach the ceasefire. As it has proven time and time again, implementation of mega-development projects in the absence of genuine peace, meaningful consultation with and consent from local communities, and without the establishment of a federal democracy that guarantees equal power sharing for ethnic nationalities are set to fail, only to exacerbate the ongoing conflict and inflict further human rights violations on ethnic communities already deeply impacted by conflict.
The local ethnic communities’ voices must be heard and the government must act swiftly to terminate this seriously troubling project and fulfill its citizens wishes. Until there is an end to armed conflict and devolution of power under a federal democracy, a moratorium on mega-development projects, including dam constructions, must be set in place. It is time for international stakeholders, in particular China, and the Myanmar government to listen to the voices of local communities and act in accordance to international standards such as the Pinheiro Principles and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, particularly as the Myanmar military continues to commit genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in ethnic areas. As Lahpai Seng Raw, a revered Kachin community leader and humanitarian aid worker stated, the BRI is “nothing more than a form of neo-colonialism, a thinly-veiled attempt at gaining dominance on the world stage.” The people of Kachin Land and all of Myanmar deserve a form of development that is led and defined by their own vision and process that will ultimately lead to peace, not by the interest of foreign governments, whether that is China or western countries.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
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Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”