The resumption of the Myitsone hydropower dam project could get the go ahead after Burmese and Chinese leaders urged greater cooperation on the sidelines of the 10th ASEAN-China Expo.

During a meeting with Burmese President U Thein Sein on September 3 in Nanning, capital of south China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang suggested that both countries should build on political mutual trust and strengthen cooperation to bring greater benefits to local people,  Xinhua News reported.

U Thein Sein said that his country is willing to improve strategic communication and raise cooperation in an attempt to approve development of bilateral ties and ASEAN-China relations.

The Irrawaddy River runs through Kachin State, northern Burma. Pic: AP.

Advocates for the resumption of the Myitsone hydropower station project said that the high-profile exchange has rekindled their hopes, calling on both sides to establish an inter-governmental mechanism to facilitate resumption of the project as early as possible.

Jin Honggen, an economic and commercial counselor at the Chinese Embassy in Burma, said that the Myitsone hydropower station is a win-win project for both sides.

Burma’s Kachin State is rich with a variety of natural resources that draw neighboring China’s interest. Not only is China keen to develop the trade and investment sector, the geopolitical frontier of the Kachin state is also meaningful for China. The Myitsone Dam project, financed by China Power Investment Corporation (CPI), has been suspended due to ongoing protests by local peopl.

On May 27, 2010, on behalf of the communities suffering from the Myitsone Dam project in Kachin State, the Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG) appealed to the then Chinese President Hu Jintao to immediately halt the forced relocation and destruction of villages in the area.

KDNG said that the dam construction is against the will of local people and violates China’s own dam construction guidelines as well as international standards. Burma’s mlitary junta ordered over a thousand civilians from Myitkyina and forcibly relocate all the residents of Tang Hpre, the main village at the dam site, before the end of May 2010. If villagers refused to leave, the junta pulled down houses, schools and churches in Tang Hpre.

The planned dam location is at the junction of May Kha and May Likha, 27 miles upstream from Myitkyina. This venture will generate 3,600 MW of electricity.

The dam is being constructed by Burma’s Asia World Company, owned by former drug lord Lo Hsing Han, and China’s state-owned CPI. Security for the project is being provided by the Burmese military.

Thousands of Chinese migrant labourers were brought in to build the dam. The development, should it go ahead, will inundate the famous Myitsone confluence at the starting place of the Irrawaddy River in Kachin State and permanently displace 15,000 people.

The dam, the first in a series of seven on the Irrawaddy and its tributaries, will have disruptive impacts on millions living downstream. Water will be stored and released depending on power demands in China, causing unpredictable water shortages and surges. This, in addition to decreased fish populations and blockage of rich sediments, will affect countless farmers, fisher-folk and boat-operators along the river.

Anti-dam activists estimate that about 20 villages between Myitsone and Myitkyina downstream from the site will be flooded if the dams collapse. Many Kachin people at home and abroad, the Kachin Student Union, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and Kachins in exile are protesting against the huge and dangerous dam development.

Protesters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, march against the Myitsone dam project in Kachin State in 2011. Pic: AP.

With a ceasefire in Kachin state in the pipeline, China hopes the postponed hydropower plan will reopen sometime after elections in 2015. Myitsone is the first of seven more Irrawaddy schemes. The aim is to generate 90 percent of Yunnan province’s electricity in exchange for $17 billion over 50 years. The general population has shown antipathy towards the project, yet the former military junta as well as the current regime are keen to supply electricity to China.

According to Burma River Network, the Irrawaddy River provides vital nutrients to wetlands and floodplain areas downstream including the delta region which provides nearly 60% of Burma’s rice. Changes to the river’s flow and the blocking of crucial sediments will affect millions farmers throughout Burma and decrease rice production.

The watchdog network also pointed out that the dams will forever change Burma’s main river ecosystem. Eighty-four percent of the Irrawaddy River’s water originates above the dam sites and will be affected by these dams. The network said that the dam is located 100 kilometers from a major fault line in an earthquake-prone area. If the dam breaks, it will flood Kachin State’s capital city of 150,000 that lies just 40 kilometers downstream.

A 945-page “environmental impact assessment,” fully funded by China’s CPI Corporation and conducted by a team of Burmese and Chinese scientists, recommends not proceeding with the Irrawaddy Myitsone Dam. “There is no need for such a big dam to be constructed at the confluence of the Irrawaddy River,” says the assessment.

Burma Rivers Network (BRN) released a press statement on 30 September 2011 highlighting that China Power Investment must cancel not only the Myitsone Dam project, but all seven dam projects on the Irrawaddy River.

Ah Nan, the assistant BRN coordinator, said in the statement, “Until the Chinese project holders publicly declare their cancellation of the Myitsone Dam and pull out from the dam site, we must assume the project is going ahead.”

Building of dams has become a political issue in China’s relations with countries in Southeast Asia. Local ethnic populations have been displaced from their homes to make way for dams and reservoirs. But construction companies close to the authorities benefit from those dams. They receive millions of dollars for designing and building dams. The government officials also gain black earnings in many ways – illegal taxes, kickbacks and inducement.

In the open letter the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) warned that the Myitsone and six other hydroelectric power plant projects could lead to civil war between the KIA, the armed wing of the KIO, and the Burmese Army because Burmese troops have been deployed to the KIO control areas to provide security for the dam construction projects.

Burmese parliamentarians, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, need to launch on anti-mega dam debate in parliament, especially to stop the massive Myitsone dam project.