Kachin Dam Critic Remains Defiant Despite Being Punished for Speaking Out

By Seamus Martov 29 September 2014

AUNG MIN THAR, Kachin State — The village of Aung Min Thar, built to house families displaced by Kachin State’s officially suspended Myitsone dam, is billed by its promoters as an “auspicious place” and a “model village.” But according to one of Aung Min Thar’s most outspoken residents, it’s not the kind of place where she and her neighbors would be living had they not been forcibly relocated there.

Ja Hkawn, a 50-year-old mother of eight, has been a vocal critic of the Myitsone project and the Chinese state-owned firm behind it, China Power Investment (CPI), since April 2010, when she was forced to abandon her home in Tan Hpre, a village located close to the Myitsone confluence where the Mali Hka and Nmai Hka tributaries meet to form Burma’s storied Irrawaddy River.

As an active member of Mungchying Rawt Jat (MRJ), a rights group established by landless Kachin farmers, Ja Hkawn has frequently butted heads with the dam’s Chinese backers and government authorities. CPI officials became particularly angry when earlier this year Ja Hkawn blasted both CPI and the Burmese government over their treatment of the displaced villagers in an interview published by the Myitkyina Journal, a newly established bi-monthly published in Kachin State’s capital.

Ja Hkawn and the rest of the villagers living in Aung Min Thar and another “model village” built across the river had been receiving regular rations from the CPI since they arrived in their new homes. Following Ja Hkawn’s Myitkyina Journal interview, both she and a fellow MRJ member from Aung Min Thar, Lu Rah, were informed that CPI had cut off their rice rations. During a recent visit to her house, Ja Hkawn said she wasn’t surprised by CPI’s punitive actions. “I feel very sad about this but I’m pleased that everyone knows what they did,” she told The Irrawaddy.

In a statement posted on the website of CPI’s local Burmese subsidiary, Upstream Ayeyawady Confluence Basin Hydropower Co. Ltd. (ACHC), the firm claimed, “We stop [sic] allocating rice to Daw Jah Khawng [sic] and Daw Lu Rah not because of their opinions about the dam but because they stated they did not want our help. Given this clear instruction from them, we gave their rice allocation to other families that were in greater need. Our voluntary donations will continue to all those villagers who need and value it.”

But Ja Hkawn maintains that this ACHC claim is based on comments she made about the company’s rice donations, which she says were taken out of context. She has long worried that if the Myitsone project is formally cancelled, CPI will in turn demand that the displaced villagers pay back the cost of the rice rations they’ve received over the years.

“It would be a lot better if local NGOs and not CPI supplied food to us,” she said, pointing out that before the villagers were forced to move they could grow enough food to support themselves and earn a modest income. Now that they have lost their farmland, nearly all of the villagers have seen their income drop significantly and are therefore compelled to rely on CPI’s charity.

Contrary to the claims of reports from CPI and ACHC, the land at Aung Min Thar has very poor soil which prevents residents from growing much of anything in the small gardens that came with their homes. Promises from government authorities in 2011 that the farmers would receive new plots of land near Aung Min Thar have yet to come to fruition, according to Ja Hkawn. Similarly, residents of Aung Min Thar have not yet formally received title to their new homes in the model village, leaving residents vulnerable to being uprooted again in the future.

Since the Myitsone dam was officially suspended by presidential decree in September 2011, in
accordance with what President Thein Sein described as the “people’s will,” CPI has lobbied hard to resume the project. “CPI is waiting for the election in 2015 so they can restart the dam,” says Ja Hkawn, who is worried that even a future government led by Aung San Suu Kyi would follow CPI’s wishes and overturn the suspension.

At the beginning of the year, Burma’s famed opposition leader publicly criticized Thein Sein for shirking responsibility by not making a final decision regarding the Myitsone project and instead leaving the matter to be decided by a future government. The Nobel Peace Prize winner then refused to say what she thought should happen to the dam. “Questions about the project should only be asked to the president,” the Wall Street Journal quoted her as saying during a visit to Karen State in January. Ja Hkawn believes that The Lady’s ambiguous position on Myitsone is a “missed opportunity” to help save the Irrawaddy River.

For its part, CPI has frequently suggested that those displaced by the project want the dam to move forward. Shortly after CPI’s subsidiary released a glossy “Social Responsibility” report last December which repeated this claim, Ja Hkawn and her colleagues at MRJ organized a referendum among the villagers to gauge their thoughts on the project’s future. Of the 1,160 people aged over 18 who cast their votes on March 12, 1,086 indicated that they opposed the dam—a clear indication of just how unpopular both CPI and the dam really are among those affected by the project.

The social responsibility report includes the much-repeated claim from CPI that the project is needed because Burma has a serious shortage of electricity. “[H]ydropower has become the best choice for Myanmar to resolve its large-scale power shortage,” says the report. But the Myitsone and the six other dams CPI has planned for the upper Irrawaddy in Kachin State will do little to alleviate Burma’s energy problems: Under the agreement signed between CPI and the previous military regime, 90 percent of the 100 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity that CPI estimates will be generated annually by the Myitsone and the other proposed upper Irrawaddy dams will be exported to China.

The fact that nearly all of the electricity that the dam is supposed to generate will not be used inside Burma has helped galvanize opposition to the project that went far beyond Ja Hkawn and her neighbors. While many across the country and in fact the world heralded Thein Sein’s decision to suspend the dam, Ja Hkawn says she won’t rest until the project is cancelled permanently. Only then can she and her neighbors get back the land to which they remain officially forbidden from returning.