Opposition to Chinese dams in northern Burma escalates

As Thomas Maung Shwe writes on the Shan exile news website Mizzima, a letter in which the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) warns PRC Chairman Hu Jintao that constructing the Myitsone Dam in northern Burma could lead to civil war signals an escalation of public opposition to the the largest Chinese hydropower project abroad. The article says that “while the KIO has previously opposed the Myitsone Dam, the language contained in Lanyaw Zawng Hra’s letter to the Chinese president is unprecedented in its criticism of the project.”

The series of dams in northern Burma (see News, 10 February 2011 and 4 March 2010) is a project that exceeds China’s Three Gorges, and is opposed by environmental and human-rights groups. KIO, which has maintained relations with the Chinese government, says it will not allow the Burmese army into its territory despite an announcement by the junta that it will begin “necessary procedures” at the project location. As Kevin Woods has argued, Chinese investments in northern Burma serve to strengthen the military state, which has already eliminated the de facto autonomy of Kokang, one of the four “special zones” (another is run by the KIO). It  may mean the death knell for the KIO as anything other than a guerrilla force, unless it is willing to be incorporated into the new developmentalism as a subordinate partner.

The KIO letter reiterates that it is open to negotiations over dam construction, but is concerned about massive relocations resulting from the current plan and the fact that one of the sites is near its command centre. The National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, has also expressed opposition to the dam.

Meanwhile, Burma Rivers Network reports that the Burmese junta ordered the relocation of 8,000 people from the site of the hydropower project 50 km southeast of Naypyidaw, being built by a consortium that is headed by a Swiss company called Af Colenco and includes a British company called Malcom Dunstan & Associates and Yunnan Machinery Export-Import Company. This project, which started in 2004, is a further signal of the return of Western investors — benefiting from Chinese labour — to dam building.


12 Responses to Opposition to Chinese dams in northern Burma escalates

  1. semuren says:

    I think there are a three points here that might need some clarification here.

    (1) In Mizzima a Shan organization? I know that ethnically affiliated exile media organizations do exist (SHAN or KNG for example), but I thought that Mizzima was not specifically ethnically affiliated in the way that some of these other groups are.

    (2) There were more than four special regions even in Shan State alone, and the KIO region (not the KDA split from the KIO with was Shan State SR-5) was Kachin State special region 2 (Kachin SR-1 being the NDA-K area).

    (3) Kevin’s New Mandala post on Chinese investment in rubber plantation in Northern Burma also makes the distinction between outcomes in different areas based on the nature of armed authority in each local. So in some areas Chinese investment has strengthened local groups by providing income sources tied to China and not linked to or directly controlled by the Tatmadaw. What then happens seems more tied to the specifics of the local ethnic armed groups than to Chinese investment (and/or trade) and its political economic effect in some general sense. So in Kokang and the NDA-K areas the result, though via different paths, has been incorporation into “into the new developmentalism as a subordinate partner.” But in the Wa-Mongla area, so far, things seem to be very different and ties to China seem to help maintain local autonomy against the Tatmadaw.

    Persons associated with the KIO have certainly made money from timber, jade and the border trade. The KIO generates power with hydroelectric stations that were built for it by Chinese companies. So even in KIO areas Chinese investment does not necessarily translate into enhanced Tatmadaw control. Much depends on how the KIO uses its resources and its connections with China.

  2. Thanks for the reaction, Semuren. So how do you interpret this latest KIO move?

    You may have a good point about Special Region 2 (UWSA), but Mong La seems over, or isn’t it? It seems clear that Peking is putting pressure on Yunnan about managing its contacts with the insurgencies, as well as with the special zones in Northern Laos, and that ideally it wants to do business with the Tatmadaw.

    As for the special regions: all sources I have seen speak of four special regions: Kokang (1), UWSA (2), KIO (3) and Mong La (4). Could you point me to sources that suggest otherwise?

  3. semuren says:

    Here is a list of ceasefire groups/agreements: http://www.irrawaddy.org/research_show.php?art_id=444

    There is also a good map (p.2 maybe) in “Neither War Nor Peace” a TNI report:


    I do not know much about the listed Special Regions in southern Shan State so I am not sure if they were actually Special Regions, but the SSA-N and the NDA-K certainly were. But even this does not get at the reality of how splintered things are since it does not take into account all the pro-government militias.

    As for Mongla, I do not think they are done, they are just a part of Wabang in practice.

    I think the KIO is in a bad spot mainly because they do not have the history and connections on the Chinese side and are seen by Chinese authorities as being pro-Western.

    I have heard the Beijing vs. Yunnan argument before (from ICG). I am not sure if it is correct or not. What I have found is that there are a lot of local ties across the border. I think that for big SOE backed infrastructure projects that there are Tatmadaw to Beijing ties, and that is what the Myitsone dam project is, but there are also all sorts of smaller scale investment and trade projects going on.

    I do not know that the content new KIO letter is really that new. Relations with the Tatmadaw really started to break down over the BGF and the denial of the KSPP’s election registration. Since then there have been several violent incidents. It does look like the Tatmadaw might have backed the KIO into a corner in that while China does not want conflict on the border they do want to get their infrastructure projects completed.

  4. semuren says:

    So one other thought that might help explain how I see this. I think it is better to not emphasize the territoriality of armed groups in Burma. I think it helps to think of them as political-business organizations/networks with arms. Maybe then the important thing is the balance or mix of politics vs business. So the NDA-K (and Kokang) pretty much were all about (by the end anyway) business. While still a business organization there is some real political side to the UWSA and certainly also to the KIO. To the extent that these groups take politics seriously they might be able to use business ties with China to strengthen their political aims/stance. If they simply become business only organizations then they will be subordinated partners in the developmental system, as you argue above.

    • semuren says:

      In a related note here take a look at this article from S.H.A.N. It is not about an armed groups as the SNDP does not have an armed wing, but it is interesting to note the SNDP’s role in negotiating an investment and that the party has an eponymous corporate entity.

      “‘The party will not be directly involved in business. We will lay down principles and hire someone to handle on behalf of the party. He/she then will operate the project in the name of the party’s company,’ Sao Than Myint added.

      The company name is called ‘Top White Tiger’, according to the party. Now, the party is producing detergent powder with ‘White Tiger’ logo. The raw materials are imported from Malaysia.’

  5. semuren says:

    Oh, and the link to the Mizzima article at the top of the post seems not to work. I think it should be this:


  6. Thanks for the corrected link. What would the politics of the UWSA and KIO stand for? KIO seems, at first blush, still to stand for ethnic politics, but is that true of UWSA?

    Also, while it seems clear that Kokang or Mong La were more or less run as business organisations with little interest in politics in the sense of ideology, there was nonetheless territorial administration, “development,” schools and all that, at a higher level than adjacent Tatmadaw-ruled areas if one is to believe reports. There were also government-run media (mostly online and Chinese). So by definition there was some identity politics involved, and it is here that the historical status of the area as a zone of “overlapping sovereignty” is interesting. I would be very interested in any insight on this. What were Kokang kids taught in school?

  7. semuren says:

    I think there is more to UWSA politics then they are given credit for in many places. In other words they are not just a drug mafia. This is based on my field work with both ethnic Chinese (from Yunnan) who do trade and investment in the area, and ethnic Chinese from Myanmar who work in International NGO projects in Wabang. At the same time, there is a lot more to the business side of the KIO than is often discussed.

    My argument about Mong La is not that it is a business operations. Rather that is is more or less militarily and political integrated with or controlled by the UWSA. However, I am arguing that locals (Kachin, Chinese and Burmese) who have involvement with the NDA-K (and/or its successor home guard organization/former members) see the NDA-K has having become just a business organization (with arms and a vestigial ethnic political identity).

    I agree that the identity politics of the area is fascinating. What I am getting at in some part about the lack of emphasis on territoriality is that I know of many cases where people move back and forth across ceasefire areas and into Tatmadaw Burma and also China. Attachment or association with various armed groups then has both potential business and political meaning for individuals and groups that are not apparent if we think of the ceasefire groups as just statelets.

    I was not in Kokang and am not sure what the situation with the schools was/is there (I will ask). But I have been to the schools in Mong La. There was an “International School” that ran half the day with a Chinese curriculum and a Burmese school (teachers provided by the Tatmadaw government) that also ran for half the day.

  8. Ali Adolf Wu says:

    Very interesting. So despite Mong La nominally being a separate “special region”, Sai Lin and his army are in fact integrated into the UWSA structures? Is there any place I could read more about your fieldwork?

  9. semuren says:


    Send me an email. semuren at gmail

  10. […] the largest planned dam in Southeast Asia and the largest Chinese hydropower project abroad, which has been the source of armed conflict in northeastern Burma. Environmental organisations and ethnic ceasefire armies, as well as the Burmese democratic […]

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