Behind Myanmar’s Suspended Dam

The suspension of work on the Myitsone Dam last September was a key moment in Myanmar’s attempt to edge out of China’s shadow. A leaked impact assessment by the company building the dam had found the project harmful and unnecessary, and it has been accused of aggravating ethnic violence in the region, but Beijing has continued to push for work to be resumed.

In a three part article at chinadialogue, Tsinghua historian Qin Hui explores broad-based Myanmar opposition to the dam, and its background in the two countries’ often tangled border politics. He examines China’s traditional claim to avoid interference in other countries’ domestic affairs, and the attempts of different factions in Myanmar to play the China card against each other.

Li Zuqing, head of the Confucius Institute in Mandalay, … has always identified with China and approves of both the Chinese and Myanmar governments. But Li told me that, while he believes China has done many good things for Myanmar over the decades, the country has made “two clear mistakes”. One was encouraging ethnic Chinese students in Myanmar to become Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. The other is the Myitsone dam: “I don’t know whose stupid idea it was,” he said. “They could have built it anywhere, and they had to build it right where it would be most taboo ….”

Something … struck me during my visit to Kachin state: although environmental damage is the concern most prominently voiced by opponents to the dam, it is not the real reason they fight it.

Everywhere in Kachin, you see photos or paintings of Myitsone, the confluence of the Mail and N’Mai rivers and source of the Irrawaddy. The iconic image is visible in any public space and is a familiar sight even in non-Kachin areas (a “Myitsone Restaurant” near the Chinese embassy in Yangon is adorned with the image). It seems that Myitsone is to this region what Mount Fuji is to Japan or Mount Kumgang to North Korea: an emblem of the nation.