In autumn 2011, waterways took on an unprecedented prominence in Burmese thinking, thanks to the great Myitsone Dam controversy.
The Myitsone mega-project envisioned the construction of large hydropower dams, seven altogether, on the upper reaches of Burma’s most important river, the Irrawaddy, with the most powerful dam nearby the revered Myitsone confluence. The project began secretively during the junta era in the mid-2000s and is led by a large Chinese state-owned hydropower corporation. Situated near the China border, the dams would have provided large amounts of electricity to China and significant revenue for the Burmese government. At the time, this was China’s largest hydropower project ever proposed abroad.
Despite harsh political repression, widespread resistance soon developed. Anti-dam activism arose from ethnic Kachin society. After Burma’s partial democratization started in 2010, passionate anti-dam campaigning emerged in lowland Myanmar. By autumn 2011, public opposition was snowballing, leading then-President Thein Sein to announce that he was unilaterally suspending the Myitsone Dam’s construction. An often forgotten, but important, fact is that the dam’s construction had already stalled a few months earlier because the region was engulfed by war between the Myanmar Army and the Kachin Independence Organization—a devastating war that continues today. Yet, the President’s unprecedented suspension made global headlines. It was loudly protested by the Chinese companies who had invested large sums, as well as the Chinese government. The Irrawaddy campaign and Myitsone suspension became a pivotal moment in Myanmar’s dramatic reform process and in its relations with China, as well as with the West.
One of the people at the root of these historic events was a church elder living in Tanghpre, an ethnic Kachin village of one thousand people near the Myitsone confluence.
He and other village leaders first organized to resist the dam project already when it was in its infancy, in 2003. Ten years later, I find myself sitting in his humble living room. I have been visiting northern Myanmar since 2010, doing anthropological research on Kachin society, including the Myitsone conflict. While his two kids loudly and proudly prepare their English lessons, he tells me how he first discovered documents that described plans to build a dam at the confluence. And he tells me how thereafter Tanghpre villagers took the lead in resisting this project. The dam’s massive reservoir was to flood their homes, and no one had even consulted them! Village elders painstakingly convinced and mobilized various Kachin activists and elites to help them fight.
This church elder continued to help organize resistance even after Myanmar’s rule of guns overrode his village. The military authorities resettled the confluence area’s villages into two newly built relocation villages, displacing about 2,000 people and taking their lands. There was little compensation. Violence and intimidation were used. Even after the official suspension of construction, for example, in March 2012, the Army came to enforce evictions and demolish remaining homes. Today, the new relocation village has no cultivable farmland, leaving people unable to grow their own food. Drug abuse has spread and a powerful company has grabbed local gold panning sites. Thus, even though the Myitsone project is suspended, the church elder speaks of a broken community:
“We, the villagers, feel we have become destroyed people. Even though the Myitsone building is not going on, but for these villagers, it is hard in their heart, for their life, for their religion. We have to spend maybe 15 years to re-establish the village as when we were living in Tanghpre. People lost their livelihoods. If they do not give us rice, we can do nothing. Her—is the new village. But this side—company covered; that side—company covered; this mountain—government wildlife area. These villagers depend on the river, stream, and mountain. Now, we can’t go anywhere: All stopped! How can these people grow? This is the big, big problem they have given us.”
He is both tragic and comic when he talks about how the Chinese hydropower company is, since the suspension, trying to befriend the villagers. Only after their project became suspended did the Myitsone project’s Chinese leaders begin direct outreach to Tanghpre villagers, broader Burmese publics, and activists. I have argued elsewhere that this effort’s ‘anti-political’ rhetoric cannot overcome the reality that defeating the Myitsone Dam has, in different ways, become a key symbol in both Kachin and Burmese nationalisms. The Tanghpre church elder shows me his determination to resist, as he pokes fun at the schmoozing of the Chinese company officials at the village:
“Before the suspension, they never came to talk, even though they see us. That time, their behavior and mentality is: ‘We do not care about the villagers! We don’t need to talk with you! We are boss. We have already talked with the government side. We have power.’
But after Thein Sein announced suspension, next year their behavior changed. They came to us and talked to us: ‘What do you need?’
And now in 2013, they changed even more. Now, what happens is – in the churches, we make some concert, singing competition, and they come and see…”
…He imitates the company representatives’ fake-sounding voices of enjoyment: “Aa-aa-aah!” And he keeps imitating their exaggeratedly friendly voices: “Oh, please, I request this song again, for me! 50,000 kyat [about US$36]!”
“They come to church and listen to what we are doing, even though we do not invite. They come and sit, and…” he claps his hands as if excited, and shouts “ha-ha-ha,” twisting his mouth into a big smile.
He shows me name-cards—“Myitsone Management Department, Myitkyina Office,” “Director,” “Deputy Director”—and laughs: “And with these two, many people come.” I giggle at his performance and ask: “Do you think they actually like the songs?”
“He-he! It is clear—if they love us truly, then they will leave to China! That’s just pretending.”
His determination to see the project leave is shared by many Kachin and Burmese activists and numerous people from various backgrounds whom I have met and talked to during fieldwork. It was these people’s intentions, decisions, and world-making—in a specific historical moment—which mobilized the anti-dam movement that eventually grew remarkably widespread. This widespread resistance to the project made the Burmese President’s decision to suspend building the Myitsone Dam thinkable in the first place. Thus, any explanation of the Myitsone controversy must begin from understanding that resistance.
Instead, some scholarly and media analyses have treated the Myitsone issue as if it stemmed primarily from big geopolitics—from China-Myanmar relations and China-US competition over regional influence. At their worst, both Western and Chinese accounts have given undue space to vague insinuations whereby the campaigning against the dam and its eventual demise was merely “US” or “Japanese” manipulations to derail Chinese power’s expansion. I am left frustrated with the apparent attractiveness of such poorly evidenced narratives.
When I tell the Tanghpre church leader about the idea that a Western-led geopolitical conspiracy created the local anti-dam resistance, he quips: “Really, they think that?! They should come talk to me!” To explain why the Chinese companies still claim that Americans organized the resistance, he turns to the reason why he thinks his village and his nation were ignored in the first place when the dam construction began:
“It’s because they don’t care about the Kachin, right? The Chinese do not ‘count’ the Kachin in their mind. They do not ‘count’ us. I know that. That’s why they call us ‘shantou’ [Mandarin: ‘mountain-top’—an imperial era Han-Chinese name for Kachin people]. For the Chinese, we are just some shantou.”
As he curiously gauges my reaction to his analysis, I think about how aware people can be about their own invisibility. In my experience, most Kachin patriots think that Kachinland is the center of the world—as do we all about our own homes. This man understands, though, that his village and his beloved nation are easily relegated to the footnotes of grand stories, principally those about China and America wrestling for power at some off-the-beaten-path place.
Such stories of distant governments and big geopolitics are blind to more powerful forces in that place. To notice those forces, we can learn from the mistake of the Chinese hydropower company and go talk with more diverse people, rather than talk only to government representatives. Our analysis of Myitsone, for example, is accurate only when it can account for the Kachin and Burmese anti-dam campaigners’ own explanations, goals, and decisions.
The moral of the Myitsone story is about many ‘uncounted’ people, like this village elder, who keep on resisting. These people matter because they want to—and do—create worlds of their own making.
Laur Kiik is a doctoral student in Anthropology at Oxford University. He studies nature conservation, nationalism, and religion in Burma’s Kachin region. His publications on the Myitsone Dam and on Kachin society are accessible here: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Laur_Kiik/publications.
If you have thoughts on this post, feel free to email Laur at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in Tea Circle, a forum hosted at Oxford University for emerging research and perspectives on Burma/Myanmar.