MYITSONE, Kachin State — Thein Sein announced in September 2011 that the construction of the Myitsone Dam would be suspended “for the duration of our government,” a move that will be remembered as one of the key moments of his presidency.
However, with the general-turned-politician’s term of office to conclude in less than eight months, and a second term far from certain, the future of the moratorium on one of the country’s most controversial infrastructure developments is far from clear.
Thein Sein himself has indicated that the project could go ahead under a future administration, as long as it abided by certain conditions. During a speech at Britain’s Chatham House think tank in July 2013, he said that with a proper environmental impact assessment and public support, Burma’s next government might choose to resume construction of the dam.
Investing in Consent
The project’s commercial backers have been invested themselves in shifting the tide of public opinion. China Power Investment (CPI), the Chinese state owned firm behind the stalled project, has been lobbying aggressively against the suspension since 2011.
According to a June report in the Myanmar Times, CPI recently hired the London-based public relations firm Bell Pottinger to “help convince stakeholders that the dam is the best way to provide Myanmar with power and that it will do more good than harm.”
This may prove difficult considering that 90% of the power generated by the Myitsone Dam—along with six other dams slated to be built on the waters of Irrawaddy River tributaries in Kachin state—is set to be exported to China.
CPI’s decision to call in the services of one of the world’s leading PR firms signals a significant escalation in the dam builders efforts to resume the project. Since its founding in 1998, Bell Pottinger has represented a number of controversial clients, including the government of Belarus and its dictatorial leader Alexander Lukashenko, the wife of Syrian strongman Bashir al-Assad, and the government of Bahrain.
According to Britain’s Guardian newspaper, the firm was also heavily involved in the ultimately successful campaign to halt the extradition of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, after he was detained in the UK at the request of a Spanish judge.
“They get involved in lots of ‘special situations’, in reputational and crisis PR,” Alec Mattinson, deputy editor of PR Week, told the Guardian in 2013. “The reputation they have is as an agency that goes where other agencies would fear to tread,” he added.
Britain’s former ambassador to Burma, Mark Canning, joined Bell Pottinger last September as a senior adviser focusing on Asia.
Villagers in Limbo
Even with the assistance of Bell Pottinger, CPI faces an uphill battle in trying to win over Burmese public opinion, which overwhelmingly supported Thein Sein’s suspension of the Myitsone dam. The firm certainly has few supporters in Kachin State, where CPI wants to build the proposed 152-meter high Myitsone dam slightly downstream from where the N’Mai and Mali rivers converge to form the mighty Irrawaddy, a location bearing deep cultural significance for many Kachin.
CPI also has plans to build a cascade of five more dams on the N’Mai and one more dam on the Mali river, as part of a plan to generate as much electric power from the Upper Irrawaddy as from China’s Three Gorges, the world’s largest dam.
Aung Myint Thar, a village comprised entirely of families forcibly relocated to make way for the Myitsone project, appears at first glance to be an alluring community. Dozens of modern looking houses line the streets of what is officially regarded as a model village. Thanks to CPI, there’s 24-hour electricity—still a rarity in much of Burma—along with a school and medical clinic.
Residents of the village, constructed with funds from CPI, are anything but pleased to be living here.
“I pray to god that we can survive”, says a female Aung Myint Thar resident, whose farm by the riverbank once grew oranges and rice. Shortly after she and her family were forced to move to Aung Myint Thar, their home was bulldozed and the topsoil from their most productive fields was removed. Project buildings constructed by CPI now occupy much of what was once a successful farm.
Since they were evicted, the woman and her husband, who requested anonymity, have been forced to eke out a living as day laborers. Their income has dropped significantly and they’ve been forced to sell all their valuable possessions, including their entire herd of over 30 buffalo.
Now heavily indebted, the woman struggles to feed her family. “My husband cries every night” says the mother of five, unnaturally frail at the age of 49.
Their story is a common one in the village, says Kai Seng, a resident and an outspoken member of the local Mungchying Rawt Jat (MRJ) rights group established by landless Kachin farmers.
“Before the move we never had to buy food. We could support ourselves with our land”, she said.
CPI disputes claims that the evictees are worse off. The firm’s Burmese subsidiary, Upstream Ayeyawady Confluence Basin Hydropower Co. Ltd. (ACHC), in which CPI controls an 80 percent stake, claims on its website that reports of “suffering” among displaced villagers are a “myth”.
On their websites, CPI and its Burmese subsidiary are quick to point out that Aung Myint Thar residents are given 24-hour electricity “free of charge”—from a grid constructed specifically to power construction of the upper Irrawaddy dams.
Free electricity is not a replacement for the loss of land, says Hkawn Ja, another outspoken Aung Myint Thar villager involved with MRJ.
“We are Myitsone project IDPs [internally displaced people],” she told The Irrawaddy.
Unlike the rest of her community, Hkawn Ja no longer receives rice rations from CPI, after the firm took offense at some critical she made to a Myitkyina-based newspaper last year.
Built on a flood plain, Aung Myint Thar has poor soil, leaving the displaced farmers without a chance to grow anywhere near as many crops as they did before their forced relocation. Despite the fact that the Myitsone dam has been suspended, residents of Aung Myint Thar and the nearby Maliyan evictee community have been officially forbidden from returning to their farms to work their land.
Although CPI funded their construction, the houses in Aung Min Thar and Maliyan were constructed by CPI’s local Burmese partner, Asia World. According to residents, they were built with inferior materials and shoddy methods. Many of the villagers have had to make numerous repairs just to keep their homes standing, said Kai Seng, while the village school is falling apart after only a few years of use.
Why CPI chose Asia World, a firm that remains blacklisted by US authorities due to the alleged involvement of its owner Stephen Law in the drug trade, to carry out its corporate social responsibility program is likely a result of the firm’s connections with the previous military regime. With a 5 percent stake in CPI’s Burmese subsidiary, Asia World stands to make a handsome return over the 50-year contract period set out for the dams.
Even if the Myitsone dam does not proceed, it remains very unlikely that the displaced residents of Aung Myint Thar will ever receive permission to take back their old farms. The Sea Sun Star Company, controlled by Hka Mai Tang, a Kachin lawmaker from the governing Union Solidarity and Development Party, obtained official title for much of the land shortly after it was vacated, according to a report released by MRJ in 2013.
Three months before the Myitsone suspension in 2011, a long running ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the government unravelled, and much of Kachin state erupted in flames.
The end of the 17-year ceasefire certainly complicated CPI’s efforts to move the dam projects forward. Shortly after the conflict resumed, a key bridge used to transport materials from China to the dam site was obliterated by explosives. Although a temporary bridge has since been built, the replacement is not strong enough to carry heavy trucks and most goods shipped to Myitkyina from China still have to go via Shan State, adding days to transport times.
Though the KIO never admitted a role in the destruction of the bridge, it is widely believed to be responsible. The group had already made their opposition to the dam known in a letter sent to the Chinese government earlier that year.
Signed by the KIO chairman Zawng Hra, the March 2011 letter noted that the KIO had told the former military regime that it opposed the dam, saying it “would not be responsible…if war broke out because of this hydro-power plant project.”
The letter also stated that while the KIO opposed building the Myitsone dam, they did not object to the other six dams on the upper Irrawaddy, most of which were either in KIO territory or close to areas under the armed group’s jurisdiction.
It appears that restarting these other dams will depend on a formal end to the Kachin conflict, which recently entered its fourth year. Last year, Chinese state media opined that the resumption of construction was expected after the Burmese government concludes a nationwide ceasefire agreement with the country’s ethnic insurgent groups, but it is far from clear when this will happen.
A clearer picture of the Myitsone project’s ultimate fate might not emerge until after the general election in November, but even a win by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) would not guarantee an ongoing halt to the project.
In a series of public comments made early last year, NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi blasted Thein Sein for not “not being brave enough” to make a final decision about the fate of the Myitsone project and instead leaving the matter for a future government to sort out. Burma’s famed opposition leader refused, however, to clarify her own position on the fate of the dam.
“Questions about the project should only be asked to the president,” she told the Wall Street Journal, a stance that disappointed many longtime opponents of the dam.
Residents of Aung Myint Thar are pessimistic about the future. For many, too much time has passed and not enough has changed to lend hope to any redress for the lands and livelihoods taken away from them.
“I don’t understand much about the political situation but either way we will continue to suffer,” said one female villager. “We lost our land without compensation.”