This Bystander is getting reports that suggest Myanmar may be gearing up for the resumption of work on the Myitsone Dam, if not immediately then at least once the summer rains are done. Myanmar’s President Thein Sein unexpectedly and unilaterally pulled the plug last September on state-owned China Power Investment Corp.’s hydropower project in Kachin state near the headwaters of the Irrawaddy river. We now are told that in the past two weeks Myanmar government soldiers have been re-evicting 100 local villagers who were originally relocated from the area but since the project’s suspension have returned to reclaim their old homes. Soldiers have also been leveling the remains of the village, according to Kachin activists.
Ethnic Kachins, who have been fighting the Nawpyidaw government for greater autonomy for their state, particularly since a 17-year old truce broke down last June, have been at the forefront of the opposition to the dam. Environmental groups say it will damage the ecology of the Irrawaddy, the country’s main waterway. Some 2,000 villagers were moved out of five villages in 2009 and 2010 so construction could start. Apart from being removed from ancestral homes that will be submerged by the reservoir created to feed the turbines, they complain that they have been resettled on land too barren to farm.
The latest round of clearances followed by a week a call by China Power Investment’s president, Lu Qizhou, to restart work on the dam. President Thein had said it would remain suspended for the duration of his term of office, which runs until 2016. But we here the sounds of backtracking. Reports say a compensation deal has been hacked out and discussions continue to get work restarted. Yet it remains a thorn in the side of relations between Beijing and its old ally in Naypyidaw, which is now as less steadfast one as it opens more to the outside world. The fighting in Kachin, refugees spilling over the border into Yunnan and drugs- and gun-running are making China’s western reaches more unsettled than Beijing cares for.
Plus it wants the power. The Myitsone dam was to be the first in a series of seven on the upper Irrawaddy that would eventually supply hydropower to western China. Planning work on the other six has continued and China Power Investment employees have remained on site at Myistone, where, we are told, they have been mining for gold with CPI’s Myanmar partner in the dam project, Asia World, Myanmar’s Mining Enterprise No. 2 and Hka Ka Bo Mining.
Large-scale panning of gold on the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers is to be banned when existing one-year mining permits expire later this year. Discharges of mercury and the other highly toxic waste chemicals are polluting the rivers, while the open mining is eroding the top soil. We have no independent confirmation of CPI gold mining, but many gold mines in Kachin state not operated by the military and their friends are operated by Chinese interests. Truckloads of gold-containing earth are seen being driven back to China for processing.
It may be the re-evictions are to prevent interference with the gold-mining operations. One other factor to consider is the weather. Work on the dam would anyway be suspended during the rainy season, from June to October. Many workers from Sinohydro, the sub-contractor building the dam for CPI, were already off-site last year when President Thein made his announcement about suspending the project. Even if work restarted tomorrow, there would be only two months before the rains come. Yet such is the political pressure from Beijing to restart the project, a resumption of work once they cease looks a more than fair bet.