Opinion: ‘They Do Not Count Us’: Resisting the Myitsone Dam Beyond China, the US, and Big Geopolitics - By Laura Kiik
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...