Illustration: Craig Stephens
Zhu Xianghui
Zhu Xianghui

Myanmar and China may have no choice but to scale back and move their troubled dam project

  • Aung San Suu Kyi wants cooperation with China and says backtracking on Myitsone would be a blow to Myanmar’s reputation
  • However, intense local and environmentalist opposition to the project may force a change, if not an outright scrapping
In late April, Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi visited Beijing to take part in the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. There China and Myanmar signed three bilateral cooperation agreements, discussed the extensive promotion of their relations and conducted constructive consultations on Myanmar's peace process and stability in the border areas.
However, no agreement was reached on the Myitsone dam project, despite public fears in Myanmar that construction of the dam, in limbo since 2011, would soon be revived.
For weeks leading up to the forum, the Myitsone controversy had dominated local media headlines and spurred protests. On February 7, about 10,000 Kachin locals held a rally in the state capital of Myitkyina to oppose the Myitsone project they said would devastate the environment and displace families. On April 1, about 200 anti-Myitsone environmental activists and writers held a meeting in Yangon and established a national committee to oppose it.

Though no decision was made in Beijing this time, a solution cannot be far off. Myanmar's top leaders have signalled subtle changes in their attitude towards the project.

On January 10, Aung San Suu Kyi, during a launch ceremony of the upper Namhtwan hydropower plant in Kachin's Putao, said that the Myitsone project has implications for national reputation. On January 22, in Kalay of Sagaing region, she answered questions from the public. She said that the incumbent government could not just cancel the previous government's project, otherwise the country would lose its credibility. On March 14, she met people in Pyay of Bago region and said, “We have to think politically, socially and economically, and we could make a wrong decision if we see it from one perspective”.

The technical problems caused by the Myitsone project, such as potential environmental damage, displacement and dam collapse, are not really the key issues. Myitsone draws a lot of attention in Myanmar, basically, because of politics.

The anti-Myitsone campaign culminated on September 30, 2011, when then president Thein Sein announced the shelving of the project. The event coincided with the outset of Myanmar's political transition and was deemed a key symbol for democratisation by the repressed Myanmar people. NGOs, activists and environmental intellectuals preached the ideal of safeguarding Myanmese interests by opposing Myitsone. Poets and writers included Myitsone in their works, equating the Irrawaddy river with nationality and sovereignty. In other words, the Myanmar society has acquiesced to a “Myitsone complex”.

After the outbreak of the Rohingya crisis in 2017, Myanmar’s nationalist sentiment grew even stronger, and the anti-Myitsone sentiment has continued to ferment to this day. Some anti-Myitsone elites who possess media and internet channels have a great impact on local communities. For example, Tun Lwin, formerly a meteorologist official who attended the anti-Myitsone rally on April 1, is a public figure who heads the NGO Myanmar Climate Change Watch.

Before 2018, the government’s strategy was vague on the Myitsone issue. The 20-member Myitsone Project Study and Review Commission submitted two investigative reports to the government, but the government has so far not released them.

However, with the Rohingya crisis intensifying and the influx of Western investments faltering, the National League for Democracy-led government is determined to participate in the “Belt and Road Initiative” and in the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor construction. Aung San Suu Kyi herself serves as chair of Myanmar steering committee for the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative.

The Myitsone issue also touches on populism and ethnic politics. Aung San Suu Kyi is definitely not a populist leader who caters to the emotion of the public. She once said that the voices on Facebook are not the whole of public opinion. Cancelling the Myitsone project would be commended by the public; this is known even to a child, but a country needs to be credible.

Yet, as the 2020 general election approaches, the NLD must consider the views of the voters, especially the ethnic minorities. Criticism from Kachin leaders has put tremendous pressure on the government. And on April 7, Khun Htun Oo, chairman of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, said that he would not “stay idle” if and when the Myitsone project was revived. The Kachin and Shan leaders' position is a warning to the government of the political risks of restarting the Myitsone project.

Kachin residents protest against the Myitsone dam project in Waingmaw on April 22, just before Aung San Suu Kyi’s trip to China for the belt and road forum. Photo: EPA-EFE

The government has been weighing the advantages and disadvantages of ending the deadlock on the Myitsone project and in recent months appears to be reaching a conclusion.

On January 29, U Thaung Tun, chairman of Myanmar Investment Commission and Minister of Investment and Foreign Economic Relations, said that the government is working closely with the Chinese side to negotiate the size and location of Myitsone project. “In fact, there are many places in Myanmar conducive for implementing hydropower projects. So we are looking at other locations to execute the project so we can produce the electricity needed by the country.”

It is a more likely option for the Myitsone dam to be relocated and its investment shrunk

At a press conference on the same day, the NLD spokesperson Myo Nyunt said: “The entire world has accepted expert views that building smaller dams on tributaries instead of huge ones on main rivers is less harmful to the environment.”

In this way, it is a more likely option for the Myitsone dam to be relocated and its investment shrunk. In fact, this practice has precedents. In negotiations last year on the Kyauk Pyu deep water port, China and Myanmar scaled back the project in response to debt worries, reducing the investment from US$7.3 billion to US$1.3 billion.

It is highly probable that the Myitsone stand-off would be resolved using the Kyauk Pyu model, with all electricity produced by the project exported to Myanmar. With other major cooperation projects in the works under the framework of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, a project under the belt and road framework, both China and Myanmar want to move on from the deadlock.

Zhu Xianghui is senior visiting fellow with the China Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He is also associate professor with the School of International Studies at Yunnan University, China