The Chinese-backed Myitsone mega-dam project has long been
controversial in Burmese politics.
The project was suspended by former president Thein Sein – but with the new government in power the Chinese are lobbying hard to see it restarted.
Banyol Mon traveled to Kachin to find out more.
These preschool students here in Kachin state are practicing a song with their teacher.
They sing the words: “These are eyes to see… these are ears to hear… this is the brain to think… I want to be educated so that I can take care of my parents.”
With the help of a civil society group, the school re-opened three years ago after Myitsone Dam project was halted.
In the nearby village of Tang Hpre, 72-year-old Sein War Htu has just returned home with her children.
Her family was forced out of their home in 2010, to make way for the new dam, and for years they have been living in a resettlement village. It’s so good to be home, she says.
“Everybody can make a living here. Some people cut bamboo, some cut trees, some go hunting, some go fishing and other become farmers,” Sein War Htu tells me.
When I spoke to grandmother Sein War Htu, she told me they couldn’t farm in the resettlement villages.
When I asked her why she said the earth was barren rock, and nothing would grow in the soil.
Fifty-year-old, Ja Hkawn, a mother of eight children, was among the more than 10,000 residents relocated due to the dam project.
Those who refused were arrested and sent to jail.
“We didn’t want to move but we had no choice. We felt sad to leave our old place behind,” Ja Hkawng says.
“As many people started moving, the school was also relocated to new resettlement village, so all of us had to move. We just prayed that one day the project would be stopped and we would be able to return home.
For those who relocated, there was some compensation, but it wasn’t enough, Ja Hkawn continues.
“We lost so much. Our plantations and farmland was destroyed because of gold mining after we moved. Now, we are worried the work of Myitsone dam project will start again. And we are worried that we will have to move again,” says Ja Hkawng.
The Myitsone Dam project is joint venture between China Power Investment, or CPI, the Burmese government, and a Burmese company called Asia World.
The project was heavily criticized when it started, leading to mass protests, and ultimately to president Thein Sein halting it.
But now with the new Aung San Suu Kyi led government in power, the Chinese ambassador and Chinese firms are lobbying people in Myitsone to support it, once again.
Li Guang Hua is a spokesperson for the China Power Investment cooperation, and argues the dam will be positive for Burma.
“Burma needs a huge amount of electricity. We can get electricity from hydropower cheaply. Our priority is to supply energy to Burma. We also have a plan to construct a road, which is 600 km long in Kachin state. This is good thing,” Li Guang Hua commented.
Yet despite the PR efforts on the ground, the people of Kachin strongly oppose the dam.
At this demonstration the people of Kachin are demanding the Irrawaddy river be kept as it is. And those who were forced out should be allowed to safely return home. Many are still living in the resettlement villages even though they want to return home.
“People have been protesting against the project because they feel their lives are in danger,” says Tu Ja, chairman of Kachin’s State Development Party.
He continued, “If you ask whether we need electricity. Yes, we do need electricity. But the problem is the place where they are going to construct the dam site is untouchable. If the dam is built then those who live along the river, will face an uncertain situation. That’s why we can’t support it.”
It’s unclear how the NLD government will handle the dam issue.
But party spokesperson, Win Htein says they have the interests of Burmese people in mind.
He tells me that it all depends on the people of Kachin, and whether they want the project.
But not everyone is convinced. Tsa Ji, the founder of the Kachin Development Networking Group, has his doubts.
“We have been asking the NLD, including Aung San Suu Kyi when she was here, but we didn’t get a clear answer. And we are worried the dam project will start again because the government is not answering people’s concerns,” Tsa Ji says.
While millions have been spent on the project so far it’s unclear whether the project will resume.
For the people of Kachin, the future for now, is uncertain.