Two years ago, authorities in Burma, also known as Myanmar, began forcibly relocating thousands of ethnic Kachin to clear the way for the hydroelectric dam. The Chinese-financed initiative was approved on the grounds that electricity and the revenue it generates would improve livelihoods in an isolated region with poor infrastructure and few economic prospects.
Construction was halted last year after a public backlash over the dam’s social and environmental impact. But activists worry that Chinese leverage with state officials will succeed in restarting the project, threatening a fragile ecosystem and nascent chances for a peace settlement with ethnic rebels who say the dam violates native rights on territory that historically belonged to them.
The Myitsone dam, a joint venture with the state-owned China Power Investment Corp., is the first and largest of seven planned along the Irrawaddy River, Burma’s most vital waterway. Slated for completion in 2019, the dam would send 90 percent of the electricity generated from northern Kachin state across the border to China’s southwestern Yunnan province in exchange for $17 billion over 50 years.
Burma’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 Web site launched as part of a public relations campaign, the Chinese company says it has invested $25 million in the resettlement while “fully respecting the desires of the project-affected people.”
Critics dispute those claims. In an August letter to the government, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi said 12,000 ethnic Kachin from more than 60 villages had been severed 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.
A bleak outlook
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 indication that Burma is tilting from China’s orbit toward the West. In the months since, fast-track political and economic policy changes have warmed Burma’s relations with the United States and the European Union.
In Kachin state, however, Burmese generals have ignored the president’s calls to end hostilities, which have intensified since the army attacked territory controlled by the rebel Kachin Independence Army near contested dam sites on the Taping River. According to a March report by Human Rights Watch, both sides acknowledge that the fighting is partly about such projects.