Burma Mysitone Dam

Pic: AP.

The decision to suspend work on the massive China-backed Myitsone Dam in Burma is considered among President Thein Sein’s finer achievements since coming to office. It’s held aloft as a signal of his reformist credentials – a man who listens to the aggrieved public and responds in turn.

But the situation up in Kachin state, where the dam site is located, remains shrouded in mystery. Reports coming from the area say little has changed – camps housing Chinese technicians and Burmese labourers remain, whilst work is ongoing on the road planned to connect the dam to the Chinese border. Moreover, according to eye-witnesses I’ve spoken to, security – both Burmese police and army – has actually increased around the dam site in the past two months. Given the project is meant to have stopped, this makes little sense.

There also remains the issue of the 1,000 or so villagers relocated in 2010 to make way for construction (a portion of the 15,000 that was originally estimated to be displaced once an accompanying reservoir the size of Singapore formed): three out of five villages have been totally destroyed, but two – Mazup and Taunghpre – remain. Bizarrely, however, the inhabitants of those villages are still officially banned from returning (although some steadfastly refused to move in the first place, while others quietly go back), and thus pass their days in the Aungmyinthar relocation camp about three miles from the dam. Those who have attempted to return to Taunghpre have been greeted by Asia World employees who warned them quickly to leave (Asia World, run by Burmese business tycoon Steven Law, the son of former drugs kingpin Lo Hsing Han, is a partner in the project).

The India-based Mizzima news agency ran a piece yesterday saying that Taunghpre villagers were warned by the Myitsone district chief not to attempt to set up home again there, and even made to sign a pledge. “He [district chief] said although there is possibility that we can work in farming again in the [Taunghpre] village area, we must not live there,” Mizzima quotes a local as saying.

This all contributes to a feeling of uncertainty around the status of the project. The China Power Investment (CPI) Corporation, the lead company in the project, is certainly not giving up hope: last week it launched a PR campaign to reengineer public opinion about the dam, which has been hugely controversial and which became one of the key catalysts for Burma’s nascent environmental movement. CPI’s office in Myitkyina, the Kachin state capital, remains a hub of activity, and eye-witnesses report seeing trucks leaving it regularly in the direction of Myitsone.

There is, however, no smoking gun, and the beefed up security makes access to the area difficult. But reports coming from the area suggest that the proclaimed ‘suspension’ may not be so clear cut. Whatever is going on continues to stir animosity among locals: earlier this week a ceremony was held in Taunghpre, attended by the likes of student activist Min Ko Naing, in which villagers constructed a wall around the local church with stones collected from the dam site. They say the wall is emblematic of their continued resistance against the project, suggesting they are witnessing a level of activity that pours doubt on the authenticity of Thein Sein’s vaunted decision.