Chinese Name: 密松水电站
Location: Myitsone, at the confluence of Mali River and N’mai River, Kachin State, Myanmar
Type of Project: Energy
Project Developers: Yunnan International Power Investment Co., Ltd. (a subsidiary of State Power Investment Corporation)
Main Contractors: China Gezhouba Group (a subsidiary of China Energy Engineering Corporation); China Power Investment Corporation Materials and Equipment Co., Ltd. (a subsidiary of State Power Investment Corporation); Number 4 and 11 Bureaus of Sinohydro (subsidiary of Power Construction Corporation of China)
Known Financiers: n/a
Cost: 3.6 billion USD
Project Status: Suspended
The site of the Myitsone Hydropower Dam is located downstream of the confluence of Mali River and N’mai River, approximately 37 kilometres from Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State in northern Myanmar. The two tributaries form the Irrawaddy River, officially known as Ayeyarwady River, the largest waterway of Myanmar. Designed with a capacity of 6,000 MW and scheduled for completion in 2019, the dam was supposed to be 139.5 metres high and 1,310 metres wide and would have inundated an area the size of Singapore. Were it not suspended in 2011, the dam would have become not only Myanmar’s largest hydroelectric project, but also the largest among China’s overseas hydroelectric projects at that time.
Its planning stretches back to the early 2000s. Struggling economically, Myanmar’s military government sought to exploit the country’s hydroelectric potential in Myitsone as early as 2002. Between 2002 and 2003, the Myanmar’s Ministry of Electric Power (MOEP) and Japan’s Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO) surveyed the Tang Hpre area near the confluence, with the Japanese company building a weather station there. Researchers from China’s Yunnan Machinery Equipment Import and Export Company and the Kunming Hydropower Institute of Design surveyed the dam site in 2005.
At the invitation by the Myanmar government, in December 2006 China Power Investment Corporation (CPI), a state-owned company now known as State Power Investment Corporation (SPIC), signed a memorandum of understanding with Myanmar’s MOEP (1) to develop two hydropower dams in Kachin State, one in Myitsone and the other on the N’mai River in Chipwi. In May 2007, the Chinese and Myanmar governments further reached ‘an agreement in principle’ to develop a cascade of seven dams on the upstream tributaries of the Irrawaddy and in the confluence region.
From the onset, many local residents expressed concern about the unannounced surveys and drillings conducted by various Chinese and Myanmar companies and the opaqueness of the project. However, opposition inside Myanmar was largely suppressed by the authoritarian regime, and the appeals made to the Chinese authorities were ignored. Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG), an umbrella organisation of various Kachin groups in Kachin State and overseas, was instrumental in raising transnational awareness about the human rights concern connected to the dams.In March 2009, the governments of China and Myanmar signed a framework agreement on hydroelectric development collaboration, affirming support for the Myitsone Dam project. When then Chinese Vice-president Xi Jinping visited Myanmar in December 2009, the two governments signed an agreement on Myitsone and the six other dams. Upstream Ayeyawady Confluence Basin Hydropower Co., Ltd. (ACHC), the joint venture established for the seven hydroelectric dams, was registered in Naypyitaw on 18 June 2010. CPI, Myanmar-based conglomerate Asia World Company Limited (AWC), and Myanmar’s Ministry of Electric Power respectively held an 80%, 5%, and 15% share of ACHC, but the company was suspended on 12 July 2020 by Myanmar’s Directorate of Investment and Company Administration (DICA) because it failed to file an annual return.
Resettlement of local residents began in 2009, and the dam construction started in 2010. Implementation of the Myitsone project coincided with momentous changes in the country. In September 2010, the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO)—a quasi-state political entity in Kachin State which had upheld the ceasefire since 1994—formally refused to subjugate its armed wing Kachin Independence Army (KIA) under the Myanmar military’s command, reviving the long-dormant conflict. Two months later, in November, Myanmar concluded its first general election in two decades, electing the nation’s first multi-party parliament in 50 years and paving the way for the country’s transition to a civilian government.
Thein Sein, a moderate force in the army and the government, became president in March 2011. As his government experimentally loosened control over media and speech, the Myitsone Dam evoked a rare nationwide outcry. The opponents of the project managed to rally previously fragmented political factions and communities in Kachin State, while at the national level the movement brought together various political and civil society groups concerned with China’s influence over Myanmar under the junta. The dam construction was first halted in June 2011 due to clashes between the KIA and the Myanmar army, and the seasonal high waters. Then, on 30 September, Thein Sein announced that the government would suspend the Myitsone dam project during his tenure.
The unexpected victory of the movement inspired activism against other Chinese-invested projects in the country, such as the Letpadaung Copper Mine and Myanmar–China Oil and Gas Pipelines. The halt of Myitsone Dam also marked the country’s shift away from mega-hydroelectric development, with Thein Sein’s government and its successor prioritising thermal power, especially natural gas-fired power, to quench the country’s thirst for electricity.
The event also changed the course of the relationship between Myanmar and China. In China, prior to the project’s setback, some academics had already warned the relevant corporations and authorities that social friction in Kachin State was rapidly intensifying and might ultimately undermine Chinese investments. However, such voices were apparently ignored. In the wake of Thein Sein’s announcement, CPI’s senior management expressed ‘shock’ over the unilateral decision of the Myanmar authorities, and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs urged Myanmar to respect CPI’s rights and interests. However, as more details of CPI and Chinese officials’ misjudgments surfaced, the Chinese authorities shifted their Myanmar strategy.
Backing away from its orthodox approach relying only on high-level political interactions, the Chinese government has since launched an unprecedented charm offensive using its national, provincial, and societal resources to court a wide array of eminent socio-political groups in Myanmar. Those invited to study tours in China now include members from liberal news outlets and opposition parties—groups thatChinese officials and state-owned corporations previously eschewed because of China’s ‘non-interference’ principle. Such engagements have sometimes carried paternalist undertones and remain controversial within Myanmar.
The Chinese side seems to have repeatedly sought to revive the project. An MP from Kachin State alleged that the Chinese developer attempted to bribe him and silence his opposition around five months after the project was suspended. More recently, apparent lobbying efforts by the Chinese ambassador’s in 2016 and 2019 alarmed dam opponents.The National League for Democracy (NLD) government, which came to power in 2016, established an Investigation Commission in August 2016 to review all the proposed hydropower projects on the Irrawaddy River. The commission reportedly submitted two reports to the President’s Office in 2016 and 2018, but the government has not disclosed any findings from the reports.
In the wake of the military coup of February 2021, rumours about an impending resumption of the project began to circulate, but no hard evidence of this has been provided.
The Myitsone Hydropower Dam, which threatened to inundate a Singapore-sized area with enormous ethnic and national symbolism, has drawn local complaints since 2002.
In the early days, the KDNG, an umbrella organisation established in 2004 to bring together Kachin groups in Kachin State and overseas, was instrumental to raise awareness about the human rights abuses and concerns connected to the project. The organisation published two important reports in Burmese, English, and Chinese—Damming the Irrawaddy in October 2007 and Resisting the Flood in October 2009.
The anti-dam struggle was previously exclusive to ethnic Kachin activists and Baptist church communities, but in the late 2000s it spread to the rest of Myanmar through the Kachin dissidents fleeing to Yangon to avoid arrest and with the help from Burman activists and inter-ethnic networks like Paung Ku.
The activists initially had to keep their campaign underground inside Myanmar, but soon the changing political environment1 allowed the movement to grow nationwide. Apart from the environmental and social concerns, there was strong resistance against the arrangement that 90% of the electricity generated by Myitsone would be sold to China. The campaigners also argued that the dam hampered Myanmar’s inter-ethnic solidarity because the project jeopardised the peace in Kachin State and fuelled Kachin hatred against the Burman.
In August 2011, democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi made a personal appeal that the ‘concerned parties’ reassess the Myitsone project, which bolstered the anti-Myitsone movement. On 30 September, Myanmar President Thein Sein announced that the government would suspend the project during its tenure, leaving the final decision over the fate of the dam to future governments. Fear that pressure from China will lead to the resumption of the project remains to this day.
In response to this decision, Yunnan International Power Investment Co Ltd set up a public affairs department in 2012 with personnel in Kunming, Yangon, Naypyitaw, Myitkyina, and Myitsone to engage with stakeholders in Myanmar. CPI distributed pamphlets to clarify details of the Myitsone project and the benefits of hydroelectric development, established through ACHC a merit-based scholarship for the local students in 2013, and invited Myanmar journalists to visit Three Gorges Dam in China. In December 2013, ACHC published the 2010–2012 Social Responsibility Report, the first of such publications by any Chinese enterprises in Myanmar. The company released two more reports on sustainable development in 2016 and 2019. KDNG made a strong rebuttal against the 2013 report regarding the supposed benefits the project will bring to the local communities and Myanmar in general. The subsequent reports did little to mollify the opponents.
During her 2015 election campaign, Aung San Suu Kyi promised to make public the Myitsone contract signed by the military junta, while at the same time asking Kachin residents to ‘consider’ the government’s liability to pay compensation over cancellation of the project. In the early days of her government, the view of Aung San Suu Kyi, the main decision maker in the NLD and the post-2016 government, on the dam and on Myanmar’s ties with China was ambiguous. In August 2016, one week before Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to China, the NLD government established an Investigation Commission to review all the proposed hydropower projects on the Irrawaddy River. The commission submitted two reports to the President’s Office in 2016 and 2018, but no information regarding the contents of the documents has ever been officially disclosed. Similarly, Aung San Suu Kyi’s promise to publicise the Myitsone contract has never materialised.
China became Myanmar’s major diplomatic backer after the Rohingya refugee crisis erupted in August 2017, and China’s support won rare praise in the public discourse in Myanmar. Despite that, any suggestion that the Myitsone Hydropower Dam project might be revived remains highly contentious.
In January 2019, animosity over the suspended project flared up again after a local news outlet revealed that Chinese Ambassador to Myanmar Hong Liang had warned, in a paternalistic manner, a number of prominent Kachin political and religious leaders not to keep close contacts with Western diplomats and not to oppose Chinese projects in Kachin State. The Chinese Embassy in Yangon subsequently issued a statement on 13 January saying that the people in Kachin did not oppose the dam. The claim was immediately refuted by community leaders and organisations in Kachin State. Thereafter, in two separate events, around one hundred people in Yangon and thousands in Myitkyina demonstrated against the dam.
Amid concerns over the potential revival of the Myitsone project, in March 2019 Aung San Suu Kyi urged the public to view the project from ‘a wider perspective’. This happened right before she was set to visit Beijing in late April for the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. Four days before the forum, hundreds of civil society leaders endorsed an open letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping, stating that a dam on the Irrawaddy River was not acceptable. Possibly as a consequence of the appeal, the dam project was ostensibly absent from the talks between the two leaders and the documents they signed during the visit.
Kachin discontent with the NLD government has accumulated over the last several years due to the unfulfilled promises on the dam settlement, the peace process, and political reforms. On the eve of Xi Jinping’s Myanmar visit in mid-January 2020, the first for a Chinese leader in almost two decades, nearly 40 civil society organisations, mostly based in Kachin State, urged Xi to put a definite end to the Myitsone project. Again, the dam, the subject of concern to many civil society members of Myanmar, was not mentioned in all official narratives of the visit. Myitsone is also noticeably absent from the list of priority projects to be promoted under the China–Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) that the two countries have been clarifying since Xi’s visit. It has been speculated that China no longer seeks to restore the Myitsone project, but is rather more interested in clawing back compensation for the company’s losses or even using it as a negotiation tactic to push for other projects. It is widely known that China’s original interest in importing electricity from Myitsone no longer exists, as Yunnan is now faced with over-capacity in electricity production.
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