Is China Deliberately Sowing Discord over the Myitsone Dam?

By The Irrawaddy 19 January 2019

Kyaw Kha: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss Irrawaddy Myitsone, the lifeblood of Myanmar. I’m The Irrawaddy chief reporter Kyaw Kha and I’m joined by environmentalist Dr. Myint Zaw and Khon Ja of the Kachin Peace Network.

Chinese Ambassador to Myanmar Hong Liang recently visited Kachin State and claimed that some Kachin leaders support the Myitsone Dam project. In particular, the Chinese Embassy’s statement [about the dam project] aroused controversy. How much has it impacted upon and caused concerns among the Kachin community?

Khon Ja: It has caused serious concerns. For example, Rev. Hkalam Samson [president of the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC)] is one of the senior Kachin leaders. He was quoted in the [Chinese Embassy’s] statement as supporting the dam project. This could seriously heighten concerns among not only the Kachin community, but also people elsewhere in Myanmar. Before the Chinese Embassy released its statement, we’d already read in The Irrawaddy about Rev. Hkalam Samson’s stance on the dam project. That the Chinese Embassy has said the opposite made me very worried. Why did it issue a misstatement? It caused controversy not only among the Kachin community but also among the Bamar community. And [Bamars] were really concerned that the Kachin had approved the project. They assume that [the government’s] decision about the dam project will change if the Kachin approve it, because the majority of the people residing in Myitsone are Kachin.

Kyaw Kha: Dr. Myint Zaw, could you recap the reasons that people are so bitterly opposed to the Myitsone Dam project?  

Myint Zaw: This project will decide whether The Irrawaddy River survives or dies. The river is of vital importance to the entire Myanmar population. As it played a fundamental part in the birth of the nation, the possibility of sowing the seeds of its destruction makes the whole country worried. Secondly, our country has the longest-running civil war in the world. [Construction of the dam] will only deepen the hatred and grievances between Kachin and Bamar people who reside downstream. It will only contribute to perpetuating the civil war and conflict. So, the Myanmar people strongly reject it out of consideration for the future of the Irrawaddy River and for the sake of the country’s future peace.

KK: So, Daw Khon Ja, you say China has not been honest in its approach regarding the Myitsone Dam project.

KJ: That’s right—China has been dishonest. When the Chinese ambassador visited Kachin State in July 2016, we presented him with printouts of statements by civil society organizations [opposing the projects]. [Leaders of] political parties including U Awng Hkam [president of the Kachin Democratic Party (KDP)] staged a demonstration in front of the hotel where the Chinese ambassador was staying. But the Chinese Embassy has said the opposite about those who have publicly opposed the project. This is even more dangerous, we believe. We are worried about [China’s] motives for saying this so assertively. I think it is worse than a divide-and-rule approach—I’d call it cunning. And the Chinese Embassy’s statement heightened the concerns of Myitkyina locals. Now an elected government is in office. What Myitkyina residents had expected was total cancellation. But then, based on what they heard from the Chinese ambassador, they assume that the dam project has been approved. And the Myanmar government hasn’t released any statement. So locals are in a fog, and this has heightened their concerns.

KK: Can you assess the negative impacts of the dam from a technical perspective?

MZ: In short, the Irrawaddy will die [if the dam is built]. This is not just an assumption; it is a conclusion based on international examples and local surveys. The Myitsone Dam will kill the Irrawaddy, and destroy the social security of millions of people who live along the river. A river flows not just to convey water, but also to preserve the balance of nature. Its ecological balance sustains the lives of the majority of farmers and fishermen in the country. The blocking of the natural flow of the river will cause huge changes in the flow of the entire river downstream. This will affect the agriculture and livestock farming of millions of people, not to mention changes in the waterway, river temperature, and erosion of riverbanks. The changes will be felt right down to the Delta. It has become clearer, according to recent international surveys, that the middle part of the river and the Delta areas will be hit hardest by the downstream impact. So it is a serious cause for concern from a technical point of view.

KK: The Chinese ambassador visited Kachin State from Dec. 28-29 and met leaders of the KBC and Kachin political parties. Before his visit, the British and U.S. ambassadors visited Kachin State. It seems that China is concerned about their visit. It seems that China doesn’t want Western countries to come close to the Myanmar-China border. The Chinese ambassador reproached the leaders of the KBC and Kachin political parties regarding the visits of the ambassadors of Western countries. So, do you think Kachin State is a buffer zone in tensions between China and Western countries?

KJ: China has not provided help for displaced persons in Kachin State. There are more than 120,000 displaced persons and it is the U.K. government that has provided the most help. So, our understanding is that the British ambassador has come to review an aid program funded by his government. And USAID has provided funds regarding human rights, natural resources and the livelihoods of people across the country, including in Kachin State. China has not provided assistance in those areas. Those ambassadors do not have offices in those areas, but their aid programs are in operation there. While people are only talking about displaced persons in Rakhine State, those ambassadors came to monitor their aid programs in Kachin State. This is how we understand [their visits]. But there may be many other reasons behind their visits. At present, China seems to have total control over the formal peace process led by the government. But the U.K. and U.S. governments play no role in the process. So, we wonder if they visited Kachin State in order to adjust the balance. But it seems China will not let anyone—not only Western countries including the European Union but also international non-governmental organizations and UN agencies—affect the position it has already established. I say this because staffers of [humanitarian agencies] can’t get close to the border.

MZ: As an ordinary citizen, I’d like to question the role played by China. While it says it wishes to facilitate Myanmar’s peace process, what its ambassador to Myanmar has done amounts to sowing discord between the Kachin and Bamar peoples. It is not an ethical act. While the country is faced with a crisis due to the Rakhine issue, China is aggressively attempting to take advantage of it, and it is acting unethically. This is how I see it as a citizen.

KJ: [China] also sows discord between the government and the people. We have read [the Chinese side’s] presentation that the economic corridor [section] of the Belt and Road Initiative [BRI] is a Myanmar government plan—that Myanmar needs it and it has to rely on China for its development and technology transfer; that the leader of the ruling party is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi; that the BRI is being implemented for the development of Myanmar; and that opposing the BRI amounts to opposing the government. This seems to be an attempt to present any opposition—for example, over the Kyaukphyu [deep-sea port] or the railroad project [that will link Kunming in China’s Yunnan province with Kyaukphyu]—as an act of rebellion, forcing [the Myanmar government] to take action. And [China’s] action amounts to sowing discord between party chairwoman Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the people.

KK: The previous government led by U Thein Sein suspended the dam project in response to public. People want to know whether or not Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will shelve the project. What is your assessment of this? Do you think she has changed her mind, as the Chinese ambassador has suggested?

MZ: I don’t think she has changed her mind, because she also opposed the project together with the people under the U Thein Sein government. Before her first visit to China, she established an investigation commission [to assess the impact of the dam project]. The commission has not yet made an official report, but my understanding is that the commission has found more disadvantages in the project [than advantages]. We assume that the disadvantages of the dam have been presented to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. And it has become clearer according to scientific surveys that the project has more disadvantages; that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as a leader would think about how to terminate it rather than how to resume it.

KK: The Irrawaddy River is the lifeblood of Myanmar and is vital not only for the Kachin but also for the entire country. People won’t accept the dam project, as it would kill the river. For a leader, accepting the dam would be political suicide. Don’t you think the government should release a clear statement about it? Public concerns have grown as the government has kept silent about it. I think some people will take to the streets if the government stays silent.  

KJ: There are many causes for concern at present [in Myanmar], and this is one of the most serious. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, in her election campaign, promised to disclose information about Myitsone. But she failed to do so after she came to power. People expect the complete cancellation of the Myitsone Dam project. People understand that Myanmar is heavily in debt, and are extremely concerned about how [the government] is addressing it behind the scenes. If there is no answer, those over the age of 18 will blame themselves [for having voted for the NLD]. Under U Thein Sein’s government, everyone raised objections to the Myitsone Dam in unison. The majority of the people felt that the government was a quasi-government, and they therefore seriously opposed it. So, the people were more united [in their opposition to the dam project]. But now, there are many blind supporters of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. We have seen people start to disagree over Myitsone. This is a real cause for concern. There may be individuals and organizations who would exploit the circumstances for political gain. And foreign countries would exploit the circumstances. This is a cause for concern to us.

KK: Myitsone was sold under the military regime. But the current government has to bear its legacy. What will be the consequences if [the government] tries to settle the issue discreetly, as Daw Khon Ja has said?

MZ: Due to opposition from the people and environmentalists, U Thein Sein’s government suspended the dam project. In other words, his government protected our natural resources and national heritage by halting the project. The current government has a responsibility to protect our national landmark by terminating the project. We people have elected the current government. Even if it can’t achieve much, we will forgive it, presumably. We will forgive it if it can’t do a lot for national development, because we are used to struggling along the way. But, if it agrees to destroy the resources and landmarks of the country, its historical legacy will be a negative one. As it is an elected government, I hope it will leave behind a [good] legacy for the country.

KK: Thank you for your contributions!