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Support us or starve: Chinese policy for victims of SE Asia’s most controversial dam project

Originally published in Mekhong Eye

When Daw Nan Ja and her family were forced from their home ten years ago, she was well on her way to realizing her dream of saving enough money to send her youngest son to college. 

Myitsone Dam victim Daw Nan Ja returning from a ten-mile trek collecting leaves and other natural ingredients to sell as she can't grow food near her resettlement village.

Like two-thirds of Myanmar people, her village on the banks of the Malikha River lacked electricity, but fishing and farming provided livelihoods they could depend on.

Now shouldering a large basket that dwarfs her 50-year-old, 4-foot frame, Daw Nan Ja describes how she walks five miles and back to collect Phawkwephwe herbal leaves to sell so she can buy food she used to grow right outside her front door. 

This enterprise is among her more recent tactics in an ongoing effort to survive under her new life dictated by China Power Investment Corporation (CPI)

In December 2009 this Chinese state-owned company and Myanmar’s military government finalized an agreement to allow China to use Daw Nan Ja’s family’s ancestral Kachin land as the site for the 6,000-megawatt Myitsone hydroelectric dam. In exchange, Myanmar would receive ten percent of the electricity generated by the project. 

Such bounty from the Malikha River is much harder to come by now as their new village is far away and gold mining has been allowed to proliferate.

More than 2,500 people spread across five villages identified as being within the dam’s construction site would have to move. The government had allowed preliminary work at the site since 2006, so Daw Nan Ja and others were already aware of what may lie ahead.

She was informed that a new, modern village would be built high above the opposite side of the river, and that two acres of farmland would be allocated to each family.

Not mentioned, however, was that this resettlement village, named Aungmyinthar, was to be sited on ancestral lands of another longstanding community.

We just want to grow food

The plan appeared hastily conceived and flawed from the start, says Daw Nan Ja. Only after the government forced the closure of their schools and churches did she and her fellow villagers concede their fate. 

Daw Nan Ja felt like an invader herself when she arrived in Aungmyinthar village. While the locals could do little about the land already consumed for these newcomers’ homes, they resisted relinquishing the promised farmland. 

Aungmyinthar resettlement village built by China Power Investment Corporation on land already used by another community, creating tension.

This was an immediate problem as those displaced had no place for their cattle to graze. Lacking money to purchase fodder, many returned their cows and buffaloes to their old pastures near the dam site. Not long after, however, the animals began to disappear, says Daw Hkawng Nang, another resettlement victim. Her cows went missing and she believes some 200 hundred animals from her village were killed and eaten by the project’s Chinese security personnel. 

Efforts made to cultivate tiny plots within and around the new village proved difficult, adds Daw Nan Ja. “The soil was red and hard. Even when fertilizers were applied, productivity remained low.”

The only thing that was growing, she laments, was “hardship and frustration.”

Four attempts were made to obtain comments from CPI representatives at their office in Myitkyina town, but the public relations staff repeatedly stated that they were, “Too busy” and, “Come back another time.”

Families were being torn apart, says U Mong Ra, who has emerged as a vocal opponent of the project. “There were no job opportunities, many women migrated to China to work as masseurs and very few young are around.” 

U Mong Ra (standing at right) with religions leaders at a protest against the Myitsone dam in Myitkyina, capital of Kachin state, Feb. 7, 2019. 

The plight of those resettled fueled local protest against the dam, especially as another 13,000 people would require relocation as their villages would be flooded by the dam’s proposed reservoir. 

Nationally, protests also escalated. The Myitsone Dam would block the confluence of the Malikha & Maykha rivers, where the Ayeyarwaddy River begins. The Ayeyarwaddy is the biggest river in Myanmar, and revered as the source of hope and life for people. It is estimated that 34 million people’s livelihoods and well-being, two-thirds of Myanmar’s population, depend on the Ayeyarwaddy watershed in its natural state.

“The Ayeyarwaddy is the main artery of Myanmar, if it is touched, all will be in trouble. That is why we squarely oppose the plan”, said U Tsa Ji, general secretary of Kachin Development Network Group.

Nobel Laurette Aung San Suu Kyi, then leader of Burma’s pro-democracy movement and now State Counselor in Myanmar’s three-year-old elected government, was among those demanding a halt to the project.

Pillars for a bridge planned as part of the Myitsone Dam project remain untouched since the project’s suspension eight years ago. 

Opposition became sufficiently strong that in September 2011, less than two years after the project officially began, Myanmar’s un-elected president Thein Sein announced its suspension.

Those still residing in Aungmyinthar village saw this decision as an opportunity to return home. Even if they could not reside there, improved food security and a reliable source of income could be attained by tending to their old fields.

Just five days after Thein Sein announced this suspension due to the, “will of the people,” he then told local authorities to prepare for large-scale gold mining to commence in and around the dam site.

Were it possible, returning to their old village would now require addressing environmental damages caused by gold mining. 

Daw Nan Ja said that migrants had already been unofficially permitted to conduct small-scale mining near her old village. This was harming the land and the water, but some areas might still be suitable for farming, she had hoped.

The government and CPI, however, are not interested in helping those affected, says Daw Lu Ra, who too has been organizing opposition to the dam. “They are only interested in controlling us or splitting us apart,” she observes.

Daw Ja Hkawng, who has emerged as a major leader among the locals, talks about how CPI began handing out monthly free rice to those in the resettlement village since they could not grow food. It now comes with a catch, however: those, like herself, identified as working against the project are denied. 

CPI representatives distribute rice to resettlement victims who do not openly oppose the Myitsone Dam project.

Hunger feeds “duty” to protest

Daw Ja Hkawng led many others to speak out vehemently last December, when news surfaced that construction of the dam may be allowed to resume.

They were particularly aghast by Chinese embassy statements claiming that local residents were not in opposition to the project.

“They talk as if they know nothing about our protests. We stood clearly against it – by sending letters to the government again and again and holding press conferences in Yangon and Myitkyina,” Daw Ja Hkawng explains. “We also did protests against it in Myitsone area, but they did not consider us and acted as if they did not know we are against it”.

Daw Ja Hkawng (center) helps lead a rally against the restart of the Myitsone Dam Project in Myitkyina, capital of Kachin state, Feb. 7, 2019.

The statements by those affected are unambiguous, she points out: people were forcefully relocated to another village, they became internally displaced people, they no longer have farmland nor viable livelihoods, and as a result, CPI must take responsibility for assisting those affected until the Myitsone dam is cancelled.

“We residents don’t want the dam and will always stand against it. It’s our duty to the generations to come. We will protest against it until we die,” said Daw Ja Hkawng.

Tight security is maintained in and around the Myitsone Dam site.

U Mong Ra adds that international organizations seem to know little about their terrible living conditions, and how China tries to use them to promote the dam project.

He points to increased efforts by CPI to make donations to churches during Christmas and New Year events and the completion of a livelihood training building where a three-month course in weaving has been offered. 

“Our people are farmers, and none of this helps us replace lost livelihoods,” says U Mong Ra. “The Chinese showoff a lot with their work in the villages so that they can take the pictures and spread misinformation. This is what the international organizations see”.

Myanmar demonstrators at a rally demanding the government permanently stop construction of the Chinese-backed Myitsone dam in Myitkyina, capital of Kachin state, Feb. 7, 2019.

With few other prospects to fend for themselves, however, and CPI’s increased presence in the village of late, U Mong Ra accepts that an increasing number of people affected may feel compelled to quiet their criticisms and to rely primarily on Chinese aid to get by.

“Our problem is our survival, our need of food,” he reiterates.

Setting down her heavy basket, Daw Nan Ja stresses how her collected Phawkwephwe leaves are now her greatest source of income, but this too will be short lived. “Other villagers are now coming to cut the leaves. The forest will quickly run out. I don’t know what I will do then, but I certainly won’t be hanging any picture of my son receiving a college diploma.”

Prior to her resettlement, Daw Nan Ja thought she would one day have another photo of her family with her youngest son as college graduate.