Opposition to Chinese dams in northern Burma escalates

May 21, 2011

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.