Chinese Officials Again Pressure Kachin Leaders to Back Myitsone Dam

By Nan Lwin 6 March 2019

YANGON—Senior officials from China’s Yunnan province once again pressured Kachin religious leaders to support the revival of the controversial Myitsone hydropower project at a meeting last week in the Chinese border town of Ruili, an influential Kachin religious leader told The Irrawaddy.

At the meeting between top Yunnan leaders and representatives of the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) on Friday, the Chinese officials said Chinese President Xi Jinping was a strong supporter of the Myitsone Dam project.

“They said it would be better if we accept the Myitsone project, as it would bring benefits to the [local] people,” said KBC president Rev. Hkalam Samson.

Located at the confluence of the two rivers that form Myanmar’s “lifeline”, the Irrawaddy River, the US$3.6-billion (nearly 5.5 trillion kyats) project was suspended by then-president U Thein Sein in 2011 amid a widespread public outcry over the dam’s potentially serious social and environmental impacts. However, it came under the spotlight again when Chinese Ambassador Hong Liang claimed after a visit to Kachin State at the end of December that the Kachin people were not opposed to its resumption.

Hong said the dam is needed to implement projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Xi’s signature foreign policy project.

KBC officials met seven top leaders from Yunnan province but did not reveal their names or positions.

During the meeting, Chinese officials also stressed that the Kachin armed group needed to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) as soon as possible in order to facilitate development projects and the return of IDPs to Kachin State.

China has been acting as a peace broker between the military and members of the Northern Alliance, a group comprising the Kachin Independence Amy (KIA), the Arakan Army (AA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA). In January, government peace representatives and the KIA held an informal meeting in Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan province.

“They think that if we sign the peace agreement, their investment will be secured in our state. But our aims [as an ethnic group] are focused on achieving self-determination and equal rights in our state. We want a federal [Union]. We have a big gap here,” Rev. Hkalam Samson said.

“They say that the BRI will help the development of Myanmar, and that we should not think the project will only benefit China,” he said.

“They urged us not to misunderstand the BRI project,” he added.

Bordering China’s Yunnan Province, Kachin State plays an important role in China’s BRI plans. In Kachin State, Myanmar and China plan to construct a US$5-million “economic cooperation zone” in Kanpiketi, a town in the state’s Special Region 1, which is under the control of the New Democratic Army-Kachin militia group. In Myitkyina, work has begun on a China-backed industrial zone with a total project area of 4,751 acres and an expected bill of more than US$3 million.

During the meeting, Chinese officials also said they are ready to help facilitate the return of IDPs in Kachin state.

“According to them, the development of the border area is crucial under President Xi’s policy. Their development plans have been stalled by the [civil] war. I think they will push harder to make it happen in the near future,” Rev. Hkalam Samson said.

In February, Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw) commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing met Kachin religious leaders in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, after the Tatmadaw declared a unilateral four-month ceasefire effective in active conflict areas in north and northeast Myanmar including Kachin State. During the meeting, the senior-general revealed his wish to hasten the return of Kachin IDPs to their homes, expressed a desire to advance the peace process with the Kachin armed group, and said a final decision on the Myitsone Dam would depend on the public’s wishes and on Parliament.