Chinese Company Lobbies Locals on Reboot of Suspended Myitsone Dam Project

By Nan Lwin 13 September 2018

YANGON — The state-owned Chinese company behind the controversial Myitsone hydropower dam in Kachin State is stepping up efforts to convince local residents and officials to back the stalled project.

Mung Ra, a ward administrator in Alan Village, located near the intended dam site, said officials with China’s State Power Investment Corporation (SPIC) told them at a meeting on Tuesday that the project would improve local’s lives.

“They explained to us that the Myitsone dam project is totally safe, we don’t have to worry about negative consequences,” he told The Irrawaddy. “They claimed that our village will get benefits, especially electricity.”

He said only about 20 local officials were invited to the project briefing.

The SPIC officials, Mung Ra said, claimed that the dam would even benefit people across the planet and that the Chinese-backed Chipwi hydropower dam in Kachin has helped electrify and develop local communities already.

At an estimated cost of $3.6 billion, the 6,000-megawatt dam would send 90 percent of its electricity to southern China’s Yunnan Province, according to the investment agreement.

Entrance gate to the Myitsone dam site in Kachin State, as seen in 2013. (Photo: Nyein Nyein / The Irrawaddy)

Myitsone is one of seven hydropower projects planned for the upper reaches of the Irrawaddy River as well as the Mali and N’Mai, at whose confluence the Irrawaddy begins. Work started in 2009 — when SPIC was known as the China Power Investment Corporation (CPI) — with the construction of Aung Myin Thar Village for displaced locals and was expected to take 10 years.

In 2010, authorities forcibly resettled more than 2,100 people to Aung Myin Thar from five villages. According to a government newspaper, CPI spent about $25 million on the resettlement plan.

In 2011, then-President Thein Sein suspended the project amid widespread public concern about the dam’s social and environmental impacts. But China is hoping the restart work on the dam to help meet its mushrooming power demands.

The project remains in limbo. After the National League for Democracy took power in 2016, the government set up a 20-member commission including the chief minister of Kachin to review the dam and its likely impacts on the environment and local communities. The commission has produced two reports to date, but the government has yet to release either.

Environmentalists say the dam site has some of the highest biodiversity in the world and warn that the project would both destroy the natural beauty of the Irrawaddy River and disrupt water flow. They say it could potentially flood an area the size of Singapore, destroying livelihoods and displacing more than 10,000 people.

In August, two days after 60,000 people were displaced by a dam collapse in Bago Region, SPIC met with residents near the Myitsone dam site to reassure them that its project would be carried out under the supervision of the world’s best dam builders.

Among the villages the company visited was Naung Chain.

Myanmar nationals protest against the Myitsone dam project outside the Myanmar Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Sept. 22, 2011. / Reuters

“We already told them we don’t accept the dam. But they approached us in many ways. They keep saying we don’t have to worry. But we are residents; we cannot risk our lives based on what they promised,” Roi Ja, a Naung Chain resident, told The Irrawaddy.

“They said they will build the thickest wall, that the dam would not be breached. But we don’t believe them,” she said.

Though Naung Chain Village is 16 kilometers downstream from the dam site on the banks of the Irrawaddy, residents still worry that their homes will be flooded if it ever breaks.

“They often come to the villages and asked us what our needs are. I am worried the Myitsone will restart soon,” said Mung Ra, the Alan Village ward administrator.

In July, Chinese state newspaper Global Times reported that Beijing was not giving up on the Myitsone dam and claimed that Myanmar’s decision to suspend the project was driving down investor confidence in the country.

Kachin State Chief Minister U Khat Awng could not be reached for comment about the project.

U Win Myo Thu, director of environmental protection group EcoDev, said SPIC wants an answer on the dam before a planned visit to Myanmar by Chinese President Xi Jinping in November.

“Before his visit, they want to find the potential result. If we cancel the project, they want to be fully compensated,” he said.

Under the original deal, CPI owned 80 percent of the project, the Myanmar government 15 percent and Myanmar-based Asia World the rest.

SPIC says Myanmar will owe it $800 million in compensation if the government cancels the dam but could earn $500 million a year in revenue if it goes head. The government is currently paying the company $50 million a year in compensation while it is suspended.

Myanmar has drawn increasingly close to China over the past year as relations with the West have frayed over its treatment of its Rohingya minority. Some critics of the dam worry Beijing’s growing leverage could pressure the government into striking a new deal on the dam.

The government recently inked a new deal with another state-owned Chinese company that clears the way for work to resume on the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone, a component of President Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative that will give China direct access to the Indian Ocean and boost development in landlocked Yunnan Province.

China and Myanmar on Sunday also signed a memorandum of understanding on the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, according to the Global Times. The corridor would connect Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, with Kyaukphyu through Mandalay and Yangon.

A 2017 poll by the Yangon School of Political Science found that 85 percent of people in Myanmar oppose the Myitsone dam.

“All [environmental experts] have suggested the project should be canceled, but we are not sure what Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision will be,” said U Win Myo Thu.

“It doesn’t depend on the cabinet. It depends on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. We are waiting to see her decision.”