MYITSONE, Kachin State — Sitting along the banks of the Irrawaddy River, Hseng Khun takes a break from her work to point out a white sign bearing a cross.
“At the top of that hill, we used to pray every morning. That’s a very important site for us. We respect it. We even planned to build a church there,” says the ethnic Kachin woman, who like most people in Kachin State is Christian.
But those plans were halted several years ago when a state-owned Chinese company came to build a major hydropower dam on the river. “They took are land,” she says, while setting up a small makeshift shop on the riverbank to sell snacks and drinks. “They forced us to leave.
The Mytisone dam is planned to be built in the Myitsone region, at a junction where two rivers known as the May Kha and Malikha meet to become the Irrawaddy. Some concrete walls were constructed for the dam but not all were completed, after the project was suspended in 2011 by Burma’s President Thein Sein in the face of protests by local people.
The Myitsone region was once famous for tourism, with the natural beauty of mountains, hills and the rocky riverbank. Local residents say tourists are now rarely seen there.
Khin Maung, who lives in the Kachin State capital of Myitkyina, remembers traveling to the Irrawaddy when he was younger.
“The beauty of the Irrawaddy was amazing,” he says. “About 50 years ago, when we were children, dozens of peacocks lived on the mountains and would fly into the Irrawaddy River whenever they heard the sound of a boat.
“But now we no longer sea peacocks in the Irrawaddy. The water was so clean in the past. Now you can see muddy water.”
Families in the Myitsone region were displaced and relocated to villages that were established by the government in 2010 and 2011, before the dam project was suspended. In the Aung Myint Thar village, relocated residents say they can no longer sustain their livelihoods as farmers.
“We can’t plant vegetables in Aung Myint Thar,” says Hseng Khun. “We can’t even plant banana trees. The land is full of stones and there are rocks underground, so I travel every day and sell snacks and drinks here for my living.”
The Myitsone site is also rich in gold. On the Irrawaddy’s banks, small-scale miners can be seen using traditional methods to find bits of the valuable metal. They collect sand from the river and put it on plastic sheets, draped over a bamboo frame, before using water to sift for gold powder.
The religious site where residents once planned to build a church is also reportedly rich in gold. “But the place is now a dam site. The Chinese took it. They took the soil. We heard they found a lot of gold there,” says Hseng Khun.
Her neighbor in Aung Myint Thar, Hong Ra, an ethnic Lisu woman, works as a small-scale miner. “We get 5,000 or 6,000 kyats (US$5 or $6) per day after we sell the gold,” she says. “We dig with our hands, so we don’t get much. Before, when the Chinese came and used machines, they got several tons a day.”
Due to the suspension of the dam construction, Chinese gold miners and engineers have left the site, but some security guards remain. Police are stationed at an entrance checkpoint on the road leading to the suspended dam sites, where visitors are prohibited.
Local residents say they were never fairly compensated for their land.
“We haven’t gotten all the compensation that was promised by the Chinese company. They said they would hold the payment because the construction projects were halted,” says Hseng Khun.
The 6,000-megawatt Myitsone Dam is a project of the state-owned Chinese Power International (CIP). It was suspended by the Burmese government in September 2011 due to widespread public outcry over its potential environmental and social impact.
Thein Sein said the project would not be resumed during his term in office, but China has made it clear that it hopes to restart operations eventually, and CPI reportedly continues to keep a small squad of staff members at the dam site.