China faces backlash as it bids to rekindle stalled US$3.6 billion Myitsone Dam project
- Ethnic community leaders in Kachin state speak out against Beijing’s efforts to restart project suspended since 2011
- Beijing emboldened by changing face of Myanmar’s relations with the West over its handling of Rohingya crisis
Political and religious leaders in Myanmar’s Kachin state have hit back at apparent efforts by Beijing to breathe new life into a controversial China-funded dam project as the Southeast Asian nation comes under fire from the West over its treatment of the Rohingya Muslims.
In a joint statement released on Monday, three ethnic Kachin political parties said they were seeking the “permanent suspension” of the US$3.6 billion Myitsone Dam project, which has been on hold since 2011 but had been slated for completion this year.
“This is the people’s desire. We won’t change our policy on the Myitsone hydropower dam,” Gumgrawng Awng Hkam, chairman of the Kachin Democratic Party, told Myanmar’s Network Media Group.
“Construction of the Myitsone dam should never be allowed.”
The backlash from community leaders came after the Chinese embassy in Myanmar said local people in Kachin, as well as political and religious leaders there, had a “positive attitude” towards the dam, which is the largest of several Beijing-backed energy and mining projects approved by the military government before 2011.
It also underscores the dilemma China faces as it seeks to extend its geopolitical influence over its neighbours through infrastructure and investment.
In December, during a visit to Kachin – a mountainous area bordering China where civil war has been raging for years – China’s ambassador to Myanmar Hong Liang said the Myitsone project was crucial for both Beijing and Naypyidaw, and that any further delays could hamper bilateral relations.
“One of the difficulties facing China-Myanmar cooperation is the issue of Myitsone hydropower project, which has been on hold for seven years,” he was quoted as saying in a statement published on the embassy’s Facebook page.
“If this issue fails to be resolved … it will seriously hurt the confidence of Chinese entrepreneurs to invest in Myanmar,” it said, adding that the two sides should “find an acceptable solution as soon as possible”.
Last week, in a Facebook video of his visit to the Yeywa Dam, another China-backed hydropower plant on the Myitnge River and currently the country’s largest, Hong said Myanmar needed more dams as a shortage of power was damaging its economy.
The Chinese embassy’s statement came after The Irrawaddy News Magazine reported that during Hong’s visit to Myiyktina, the capital of Kachin, he had been “bossy” towards local leaders, urging them to back the Myitsone dam – which he said had the support of Aung San Suu Kyi – and telling not to fraternise with Western diplomats, who were also visiting.
Reverend Hkalam Samson, the president of the Kachin Baptist Convention, who was one of six local leaders to meet Hong, was quoted by local media as saying that despite Hong’s comments he had not changed his mind and was still against the dam.
Sitting at the confluence of the Mali and N’Mai rivers, the Myitsone Dam is the largest of seven planned along the Irrawaddy, Mali Hka and N’Mai Hka rivers in Myanmar. It is also the first to span the Irrawaddy, which is regarded as the cradle of civilisation for Myanmar’s ethnic Burman majority.
In September 2011, then president Thein Sein announced the suspension of the project, which had been initiated before he took office, saying it was “against the will of the people”.
Although the government set up a commission to evaluate the project, little progress was made and it stalled.
Its suspension was seen by many as a shift away from Myanmar’s close ties with China – nurtured over decades of military rule – in favour of rekindled links with the West.
“The suspension of Myitsone was a symbolic event for bilateral ties, which I think marked the normalisation of Myanmar’s relations with the West and changed China-Myanmar ties,” said Fan Hongwei, a professor at Xiamen University’s Research School of Southeast Asian Studies.
But that changed again after Western nations imposed sanctions on Myanmar in the wake of its brutal clearance operation in Rakhine state, which saw indiscriminate killing, rape and the destruction of whole communities as more than 700,000 Rohingya people were driven out of the country and over the border into Bangladesh.
“After 2011, the public sentiment towards Beijing was negative and deep … no one had a good word to say about China and the government was trying to keep its distance,” Fan said
“But that is changing, especially as the people of Myanmar make their own judgments on how China and the West responded to the Rohingya crisis. Beijing’s latest moves are more obvious and being closely watched by the media.”