Myitsone Dam, Kachin Conflict under Spotlight in New Film

By Sean Gleeson 16 October 2015

RANGOON — A new documentary film premiering in Rangoon this weekend offers a view into the social upheaval and dislocation caused by the Myitsone Dam project in Kachin State.

Produced over four years, including months embedded in the now largely abandoned Tang Hpre village in the dam’s catchment area, Dams, Drugs and Democracy charts community opposition to the dam before and after President Thein Sein announced the controversial megaproject’s suspension in 2011.

Filmmakers follow a group of Tang Hpre residents as they are moved to the Aung Myint Thar resettlement village, constructed by Myitsone project partner Asia World. Villagers say that the homes built by the company, which remains listed on the US Treasury sanctions list as a result of its links to the narcotics trade, are poorly constructed and will not last more than a few years.

“I had to build our concrete foundations,” said Seng Hkawng, 33, who was one of hundreds to be relocated from Tang Hpre after being given a 100,000 kyat (US$78) ex gratia payment. “The roof blew off during the last rainy season. There’s nowhere to find firewood. The builders had no sense of responsibility.”

Elsewhere, the documentary chronicles the introduction of heroin into the local community, as land near Tang Hpre is leased to local gold mining firms and an influx of workers leads to the spread of drug use.

As the majority stakeholder in the dam, a subsidiary of China Power Investment Corp., lobbies for the resumption of construction, the film follows the 2014 protest led by Ye Htut Kaung, which marched from Rangoon to Kachin State in opposition to the project.

“The people who put us in prison are the ones that will be seen as criminals in the eyes of history,” the activist told filmmakers.

Shortly after the march, Ye Htut Kaung was arrested and imprisoned for 12 months under the Peaceful Assembly Act.

Set against the renewed conflict between the Burmese government and the Kachin Independence Organization, which has been ongoing for four years, villagers interviewed in the film said their lives had been turned upside down by the Myitsone project.

“Whenever someone gets into a high position in this country, they only care about their own lives and their own family,” Share Gum Ja, who moved to Tang Hpre in 2002, told filmmakers. The 65-year-old is now living on his own in the village after the death of his wife and mother and in defiance of a ban on former residents returning to their homes.

“They don’t bother with us, unless they have something to take from us, or if they want to force us to work for them.”

When construction on the Myitsone Dam was suspended in 2011, President Thein Sein deferred an ultimate decision on the project until after the 2015 general election. The ultimate fate of the dam remains unclear.

The film will be screened on Friday evening to a sold out crowd at Myanmar Deitta on 44th Street, Botahtaung Township. A repeat screening at the same venue will be held for registered attendees on Sunday at 3pm. More information about Dams, Drugs & Democracy can be found at the film’s website