Making SPACE to influence decision-makers
The start of 2019 has brought with it a clear return to a long-running Myanmar civil society struggle: the Myitsone dam project. Just over seven years previously, on September 3 2011, civil society across Myanmar was celebrating after then-President Thein Sein suspended the controversial project. He acted in response to what had been a countrywide protest, the like of which had not been seen before.
In this case study, we will trace the history of the Myitsone struggle; explain recent developments; and explore the role that Paung Ku has played in helping to protect two important symbols of identify for Kachin and Myanmar people.
For the Kachin people, tradition states that the confluence of the N’Mai and Mali rivers near Myitsone in Kachin State is the birthplace of their race. For the rest of Myanmar, the Ayeyarwaddy River (formerly Irrawaddy) —which is formed by the N’Mai and Mali joining together—is a lifeline that runs through Myanmar. The river’s delta is home to most of Myanmar’s rice production, while the rest of the river provides water and livelihoods to hundreds of thousands of people who live along its banks.
So when in 2006 the former military regime announced that it had signed an agreement with state-owned electricity producer the China Power Investment Corporation to build a massive hydroelectric dam at Myitsone, feelings ran high. The Myitsone dam was one of eight dams planned in Kachin State as part of a US$3.6 billion proposal that would have seen one dam built on the Chipwe River (about 150km from Mytkyina); five built on the Maykha River and one on the Malikha River.
The biggest of these—at 152 metres (500 feet) high and 152 metres wide—was to be at Myitsone. Polluted water expelled from the turbines was to go straight back into the river while an estimated 90% of the power generated would go to China.
The resultant flood plain has been described as potentially the size of Singapore, with subsequent displacement of as many as 20,000 people: mainly the Kachin traditional owners of the land. Environmentalists say the dam site has some of the highest biodiversity in the world and warn that the project would destroy both the natural beauty of the Ayeyarwaddy River and severely disrupt water flow throughout the Ayeryawaddy’s 2,210km length. This, in turn, would affect all those people, animals and plants that rely on the river for survival. Risks from flooding would also increase, with the capacity of forests to retain floodwater degraded by loss of trees and riverbeds silting up with accumulated deposits. Statistics and reports from the Myanmar government and China Power that proclaimed the benefits of the deal were widely dismissed as artefacts of politics and self-interest, and there was mass concern at a lack of transparency and accountability surrounding the deal.
People from all walks of life and from across the country came together to ‘Save the Ayeyarwaddy!’, in what was probably the first mass protest of its kind in Myanmar against what was seen as vastly inappropriate development. The Kachin people guard their precious Myitsone not just to secure Kachin land, river and resources but also because of the importance of the Ayeyarwaddy to the rest of the country. The river is a vital part of Myanmar; flowing past and bringing together people of different cultures, ethnicities, and livelihoods, as well as through diverse ecological and biological systems. Campaigners agreed: to lose the Ayeyarwaddy would mean losing the heart of Myanmar. Concerns were also expressed that the project could lead to an intensification of the decades-long conflict between Kachin armed forces and the Myanmar army. A 17-year ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Army and the Myanmar Army ended in 2011, after the Myanmar Army attacked KIA forces close to an existing hydropower plant. The agreement to build the dam was widely condemned as an act of self-interest from the Chinese government and the military regime.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi launched her own ‘Irrawaddy Appeal’ and describing the mighty river as ‘the most significant geographical feature of our country, the grand natural highway, a prolific source of food, the home of varied flora and fauna, the supporter of traditional modes of life, the muse that has inspired countless works of prose and poetry’ (Aung San Suu Kyi, 2011).
The campaigning took many inspired forms. Environmental impact reports were commissioned; experts brought in from across the region and from further afield; artists, dancers, musicians, poets, writers and celebrities contributed their skills and commitment; public talks were organized across the country; people of all religious beliefs joined together to oppose the dam; opposition to the Myitsone plan mobilised the nation. A poll carried out by the Yangon School of Political Science has been reported as finding that 85% of people surveyed opposed the dam project (Myanmar Times, January 3, 2017).
Paung Ku was asked by a wide array of civil society partners to use all of its services in supporting this mass uprising of civil society: since 2010, when we were first approached by Kachin activists, we have supported campaigners across the country with reflection and learning, accessing technical and financial resources, networking, and linkages (see infographic). For Paung Ku’s Mandalay-Kachin team, a sightseeing trip to the confluence of the rivers the dam site—organized as a peaceful break during a team meeting in Myitkyina (capital of Kachin State) in 2014—only added to their resolve to support civil society in opposing the dam. Program Officer Kyaw Soe Oo writes:
From the bus, we saw acres of land on which fallen trees were scattered. Armed security guards in uniforms were standing by. The area was once a land of hills and valleys clad in dense forest where monkey, other animals and so many species of birds enjoyed living in peace and harmony. Now they were driven out, and we heard of rare species being driven to the edge of extinction. We could see rows of metal roofs glittering in the sunlight as we got closer to Myitsone village; rows of barracks and warehouses had been erected. Red boards with the signs “restricted zone” were everywhere around.
When then-President Thein Sein announced suspension of the dam scheme in 2011, it was a major win for Myanmar’s civil society as it emerged from decades of military control. Of the other seven dam projects contained in the same deal—none of which drew the protests that the planned Myitsone dam did—one (on the Chipwi River) has been completed although it was shut down for two years due to damages caused by armed conflict. The others were all suspended in 2012 ‘due to armed conflicts in north Myanmar’.
Now, seven years later, the struggle for Myitsone and the Ayeyarwaddy is starting again.
Recent developments: the name has changed, but the game is the same…
China Power merged with the State Nuclear Technology Corporation in 2015 to form State Power Investment Corporation Ltd (SPIC). Still state-owned, SPIC is under the administration of the Chinese central government. It holds seven listed companies, including SPIC Yunnan International Power Investment Co., Ltd (SPICYN). SPICYN is an 80% shareholder in Upstream Ayeyawady Confluence Basin Hydropower Co, Ltd (ACHC), a joint venture established by SPICYN, Myanmar’s Ministry of Electricity and Energy (15% shareholder) and Asia World Company (5%).
There is evidence of increasing pressure from China for the dam project to re-start; in June 2018, when Myanmar President U Win Myint attended the 8th Ayeyawady-Chao Phyra Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy Summit, China’s Global Times took the opportunity to publish a story titled ‘Relaunching Myitsone Hydropower dam could win investor confidence in Myanmar’.
The story stated:
If Myanmar wants to make itself an attractive destination for investment, especially in the field of hydroelectric infrastructure, the country must pay more attention to maintaining policy continuity and consistency.
… the [Myitsone] hydropower station is a commercial cooperation project that China and Myanmar have agreed upon. Myanmar did something unorthodox when it suspended a project that had gone through a complete approval process.
The Global Times is owned by The People’s Daily, which is itself the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party.
September 2018 saw representatives of SPIC travelling to meet with local residents and officials ‘to convince them’ to back the project, according to a report in The Irrawaddy. ACHC has issued statements ratifying their plan to build a dam at Myitsone, and trying to convince Kachin and other Myanmar people that the dam will bring benefit to the Kachin and to the country as a whole.
Reports are coming in of villagers being offered incentives to support the dam proposal, ranging from health care provision to the building of schools and provisions of vehicles. Local administrators and religious leaders are also being courted. Dr Myint Zaw, a Myanmar journalist and activist who won the 2015 Goldman Environment Prize for his work on reporting the environmental and social impact of the proposed dam (work that was supported in part by Paung Ku), , noted:
China is under the delusion that with more public relations and bigger enticements they will get the dam project back on track.
In January 2019, the Global Times published a story titled ‘What holds back Myanmar’s development?’. The story introduction read: ‘With the progress of China-Myanmar relations, the resumption of the Myitsone Dam project in northern Myanmar can be placed on the agenda of both parties. The Myitsone Dam is a hurdle in the way of China-Myanmar relations and an obstacle to Myanmar’s economic development and attracting foreign investment’.
The story concluded:
The political factors that interfere with this problem must be eliminated, especially the tendency of some Western organizations to mislead. Let people know the actual role of the dam in development and how China uses advanced environmental technologies for dam building and management. Starting this process as soon as possible will facilitate further cooperation between China and Myanmar and accelerate the development of Myanmar.
This was all in spite of the December 2018 publication of a Strategic Environmental Assessment of Myanmar’s hydropower sector, supported by the energy and finance ministries and authorised by the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank Group. The SEA recommended ‘excluding all mainstream hydropower development on the Ayeyarwaddy, Chindwin and Thanlwin rivers’
Campaigners are not daunted. Whenever representatives of SPIC or ACHC travel to the dam site, they are met by protesters wearing ‘No dam!’ t-shirts. When World Bank representatives visited the Mytisone site, protesters walked from Myitkyina to Myitsone to join them. The protest walk was organised by the Htoi Gender and Development Foundation, Kachin Development Networking Group, and Mara Juu Group. Villagers from locations along the route joined in the protest as it passed; by the time the walk reached Myitsone, it was about 300 people strong.
Prayer meetings have been held in villages that will be lost if the project does go ahead, and civil society activists across Myanmar are starting, once more, to share information and ideas in readiness for the ongoing battle.
Paung Ku’s commitment and contributions to the Myitsone campaigns have been noticed and welcomed. Dr Myint Zaw said:
When I talk to leading Kachin civil society organisations, I realise how much they trust and respect Paung Ku. That’s why they go to Paung Ku for brainstorming on possible campaigns and activities, as well as for support in finding experts and making links across the country and across the region. They also appreciate that Paung Ku does not try and tell them what to do, but appreciates and recognises their existing capacities and knowledge.
On Paung Ku’s side, Mandalay-Kachin team Program Officer Kyaw Soe Oo said:
Paung Ku will increase its efforts in coming years to help CSOs and other key actors as they and we keep learning and acting together to protect Myitsone and the Ayeryawaddy. We are guided by the needs and voices of local people and CSOs; Paung Ku will never fail to recognize or appreciate the solidarity of so many activists and organisations who stay true to their dream of no dam at Myitsone.
Brief timeline of Paung Ku works
- 2009: Celebrated “World Water Day” (used world water day as a mean to articulate Myit Sone issues).
- 2010: Kachin-based CSO Sein Yaung So approaches Paung Ku to brainstorm options open to them and to reach out to other Myanmar civil society actors. When Sein Yaung So decides to start a national awareness-raising campaign to mobilise anti-dam support, Paung Ku provides mentoring and puts Sein Yaung So in contact with technical resource persons and famous speakers. Recordings of the key messages delivered during this awareness raising campaign were made into a DVD (funded by a small grant from Paung Ku) and distributed throughout the country. Monasteries including Kandet-Kone monastery in Mandalay and North Oakalapa Monastery in Yangon took the step of distributing the DVD. Moreover, Aung Ku help and fund to have a nursey school in Tan Phae Village. (Tan Phae Village faced force-eviction because of Myit Sone Project however, most of the villagers remain living at Tan Pane.) Paung Ku also commits to facilitating regular networking among the many and diverse civil society actors who are passionately opposed to the dam project. This support has continued.
- 2011: Small grants provided to Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG), a network of Kachin civil society groups and development organizations inside Kachin State went oversea exposure visit to Bhumibol Dam in Chaing Mai, Thailand. Paung Ku and Sein Yaung So reflect on and learn from the awareness-raising activities, and reach out to other actors to embark on a round of innovative and creative ventures, including: A riverboat trip from Mandalay to Shein-Ma-Khar village where invited writers, poets, artists, musicians, and CSO members developed strategies to campaign against dam construction. The trip was alive with dancing, poetry recitals, painting, and the composing and singing of songs to heighten the passion for Ayeyarwaddy. CSOs Zin Lun, Maryar Gar and the Ayeyarwaddy Foundation join together to organise a march from Myitsone to Mytkyina (a journey of about 40 miles, or 64 km). En route, a memorial to the fight to save the Ayeyarwady was erected in Tan Phe village. In the same year “Public Forum of Myit Sone “was organized by Paung Ku to enhanced public participation regarding to case. Village support group Zin Lun, established by those who had been forcibly relocated from Tan Phe to the ‘model village’ of Aung Myinthar (build by China Power) approached Paung Ku for help because many families could not cover the cost of transporting their children to and from the school provided in one area of Aung Myinthar.
- 2012 “Why we must protect our Ayeyarwaddy?” Exhibition. It was carried out to draw public attention for Myit Sone issues. It elevated awareness the vital role of the vital role of Ayeyarwady for the country. Public talks by scholars, experts and penal discussion of effected community members were also included in the event and alongside with this, a workshop was facilitated among locals CSOs working for the issues. “Ayeyarwaddy Watch Network” was initiated after the workshop.
- 2013 “Vanishing Treasures of Myanmar” part 1 and part 2 celebrated in Yangon. The Exhibit presented works on the issues of water resources, mountains, forests and trees, biodiversity, art, cultural heritage, diversity, ethnicity, music and sustainability in Myanmar by well-known Graphic Designer Myint Maung Kyaw, Songwriter Myint Moe Aung, Environmentalist Myint Zaw, Writer Ko Tar and Author Ju. Exhibitions were on for 3 days each part. Paung Ku also published 11 books regarding with water resources and assorted policies.
- 2014 A train journey from Mandalay to Myintkyina was organized by Paung Ku embraced various CSOs opposed to the dam distributing ‘Stop the Dam’posters and leaflets to local people along the way. Ayeyarwaddy People Forum was held in Mandalay.
- 2015: Paung Ku took the lead in organising events to commemorate the fourth year of the dam suspension, organising a series of public talks in Mytkyina. A further public awareness exhibition kick off in Yangon Living River. Paung Ku organized a closed-door meeting with Myit Sone’s focal actors (CSOs) and discuss about new strategies for new-elected government.
- 2016: By the request of the villager at Aung Myinthar, Paung Ku provided a small grant to aid to get the clean water resource as Ayeyarwaddy river couldn’t provide clean water every season. There were two events held in Yangon named “Myanmar Ayeyarwady’s forward jounery” and “Myanmar Ayeyarwaddy Myanmar Future”.
- 2017 Paung Ku program officer continuously keep in touch with Kachin Community Organizations for mentoring, discussions and community engagement.
- 2018: Commemoration of 7th anniversary of Myitsone suspension. Mass rally held in Tan Phe village (threatened by the dam project). Organised by Kachin CSOs with input from Paung Ku. Leading environmental organization Myanmar Green Network took the lead on inviting speakers and arranging media coverage from media outlets including Weekly Eleven, 7 Day and Frontier Myanmar.