Business, Finance & Economics

Proposed dam to flood Burma, while powering China

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MYITKYINA, Burma — On the first morning of each New Year, hundreds of people come to pray on the banks of the Irrawaddy River in northern Burma.

This year, they prayed that their villages, farms and churches would not be drowned.

A large dam will flood an area the size of New York City and displace thousands of local people over the next two to three years. The Myitsone dam, constructed by the Burmese military government and the China Power Investment Co., calls for a 500-foot-wide by 500-foot-high dam face, and is projected to produce between 3,600 to 6,000 megawatts of electricity by 2017.

The dam will inundate 300 square miles in Kachin state, flooding 47 villages, including the Mother of Peace shrine where the traditional New Year's prayers are held.

But the capital of Kachin state, Myitkyina, already has affordable power 24 hours a day. So, why displace thousands of people in Burma when they already have power?

burma man prays
Man prays during 24-hour prayer against Myitsone dam, Jan. 18.
(Ryan Libre/GlobalPost)

Because when the Myitsone dam is complete, the hydroelectric power will go to Yunnan, China. In addition, the water reserves will irrigate a mega-plantation inside the protected Hukawng Valley in Burma, now home to the world's largest tiger reserve, furthering the displacement of people and destruction of the environment.

The dam will generate an estimated $500 million in gross annual revenue for the Burmese government, which has long been criticized for its gross human rights abuses — including but not limited to the recent trial, conviction and sentencing of pro-democracy leader Aung
San Suu Kyi, and the brutal crackdown of Buddhist monks in September 2007.

Kachin is extremely rich in natural resources. Jade, gold, teakwood and silicone are exported in large quantities, and the mountainous, fertile terrain offers many hydropower sites. But because the Burmese government tightly controls resources and politics, the Kachin people have little say in their land and little benefit from its exploitation.

Construction jobs are earmarked for Chinese migrants, not the local people of Kachin. The opening ceremony for the Myitsone dam was held with high-powered officials from both the Burmese and Chinese government. The few local villagers who were present had been
instructed to attend. Chinese work camps already have been built near the Mother of Prayer shrine, and the first truckloads of workers are gearing up for construction. Caravans of Burmese soldiers have arrived to secure both the dam site and the Chinese labor camps. The signs pointing the way to the dam site are up, not in the local language, Jinghpaw, but in Chinese.

Burmese gold miners and loggers from the south also have come north with help from military contacts to start extraction, industrial and commercial enterprises. Like many Kachins, the local villagers facing displacement are poor and pious.

The Burmese government and China are also collaborating on a pipeline to bring oil from the Bay of Bengal through lowland Burma and the Shan state to Yunan, bypassing the long maritime route through the bottle-necked Strait of Malacca, according to the China Daily.

Bilateral investment, trade and arms deals with China bankroll the Burmese military government, despite sanctions by many of the world's largest economies, according to the BBC.

Lacking the basic rights to express their opposition, people in Burma have been unable to protest the dam and pipeline projects. The Burmese military is bankrolled by the vast Burmese resources it extracts and sells, and it maintains power despite widespread popular opposition and international condemnation, according to the Burma River’s Network, which represents communities in Burma affected by dam projects.

Twenty-five large dams are planned or are under construction in Burma, the Burma River Network said, and Kachin locals say they worry about the dams' safety. In 2006, two dams in Kachin state broke under stress after heavy rains. One of these dams failed and destroyed hundreds of patty fields and farms. The other, the 2.5 megawatt Chying Hkrang dam, relatively small in comparison to the 3600-megawatt Myitsone dam, collapsed killing five people.

Kachin people have voiced worries about the Myitsone dam's planned location 24 miles above the state capital and 62 miles from Burma’s earthquake prone Sagaing fault line.

"If I have to move, I will not move downstream to the capital," said a local pastor. "I could never get a good night sleep because I think this dam will also break."

The Mother of Peace shrine sits on an island where the Mali and Mai rivers converge to create the great Irrawaddy River. The New Year's prayer ceremony is deeply religious and apolitical. Villagers ask for forgiveness for their sins, and they pray for health, safety and peace.

"I will pray silently and directly to God for a miracle, to stop the dam project," said one villager. "I will not voice this prayer out of concern for my safety. I have no illusions that the government cares what I think."