WITH LESS THAN a fortnight left before the commission set up to assess the trade-offs between the economic benefits and the social and environmental damage of planned hydropower dams on the Irrawaddy (seen above) is due to submit its report to Myanmar’s president, word is emerging that the commission may recommend that the controversial Myitsone dam project is scrapped. If so, that would kick a potentially politically prickly decision to President Htin Kyaw (nominally) and (in practice) de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s new NLD-led government.
The $3.6-billion-dollar dam is heavily China-backed. China Power Investment Corp. (CPI) is financing the 4,600MW project and Sinohydro doing the construction — such as it is to date; then Myanmar President Thein Sein suspended work on the dam in 2011 in the face of local protests over village displacement, traditional livelihoods being at risk and dissatisfaction that China will get 90% of the electricity generated.
Beijing has since been pushing hard for a resumption of work, and at times it has seemed set to restart. In March, Vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin called the project crucial for China.
While China has six other hydroelectric projects in Myanmar, not to go ahead now with Myitsone would rupture relations between Beijing and the new democratically elected government in Naypyidaw. Aung San Suu Kyi has been carefully rebuilding the relationship with Beijing, coloured by its support for the former military dictatorship and her desire to open Myanmar to a broader range of foreign investors.
However, when she visited Beijing in August, the Myitsone dam was conspicuously absent from a range of projects on which she and her hosts agreed to enhance their cooperation. The two sides agreed to no more than “to work together find a solution to the issue of the stalled Myitsone Dam project”. Termination of Myitsone would set precedents for other unbuilt or in-construction Chinese-backed infrastructure projects in the region that would be unwelcome to China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ aspirations.
However, cancellation of Myitsone would be popular within Myanmar. Myitsone is in Kachin state. Many ethnic Kachin reportedly said they voted for the NLD in the recent historic elections because they saw the party as their best hope of getting Myitsone stopped.
Alienating those voters risks making the NLD government’s hoped-for settlement with Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups more complicated. The armed wing of the Kachin Independence Organisation, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), is one of those still fighting the government.
Beijing will not want an even more unstable border than it has now. Since the breakdown of a ceasefire between the KIA and the Myanmar military in 2011, It has already had to take thousands of Kachin refugees fleeing the conflict into camps on the Yunnan side of the border. It has brokered talks between the KIA and Naypyidaw in the hope of bringing some stability to the area.
There is a thriving but illicit trade in gems, timber, drugs and increasingly people across the border. China is also the biggest (legitimate) purchaser of Myanmar’s jade, has two oil and gas pipelines that pass through Kachin state and six other dam projects apart from Myitsone, the most notable of which is the Dapein Dam 1, which started generating power in 2011.
There is more than a single dam project in play. Myitsone will be being weighed in the balance of that greater calculation in both capitals while frantic efforts are made to see whether there is any face-saving deal that can be struck. Stakes are high on both sides. As a result, we may well not see the details of the commission’s report when it is handed over on November 11.