Myanmar's Myitsone Dam Project Stalled: Chinese Advantage - Jamestown (2023)

Introduction: China's Stalled Dam Project in Myanmar

On January 12, the Embassy of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in Myanmar issued a statement warning Myanmar that "the confidence of Chinese businessmen to invest in Myanmar would be "seriously undermined" (global times, February 21st). Fifteen days before the declaration, the Ambassador of the People's Republic of China to Myanmar, Hong Liang, visited the Kachin capital Myitkyina, where he met with local Kachin groups and religious leaders to express support for the revival of the controversial project of Chinese-backed dam. Hong reportedly warned them against opposing Chinese projects, including the Myitsone project in Kachin state (O Irrawaddy, January 9th). PRC officials have visited the homes of Kachin villagers to rally support for the project (O Irrawaddy, 13. September 2018).

The $3.6 billion Myitsone dam project is a joint venture between China and Myanmar: Myanmar's Ministry of Electric Power and a national conglomerate, Asia World, and the state-owned China Energy Investment Corporation of the People's Republic China signed a memorandum of understanding in 2006; Subsequently, work on the project began in December 2009. In September 2011, amid protests over the social and environmental costs of the Myitsone Dam, Myanmar's then-President Thein Sein announced the cancellation of the project, citing the "will of the people". (Mizzima, 09/30/2011). Since coming to power in January 2016, Myanmar's National League for Democracy (NLD) has avoided making a decision on the future of the project. But with State Councilor Aung San Suu Kyi set to meet Chinese leaders on the sidelines of the upcoming Belt and Road forum in Beijing to discuss the Myitsone project, the NLD government must decide the fate of the project. before Suu Kyi left for Beijing (O Irrawaddy, 5th of April). This will not be an easy decision as the government is caught between increasing pressure from the PRC and the demands of the Myanmar people to stop the project.

Concerns and controversies surrounding the Myitsone dam project

The Myitsone project called for the construction of a dam approximately 3.2 kilometers south of the confluence of the Mali Hka and N'Mai Hka rivers, where the Irrawaddy River rises. The dam was to have an installed capacity of 6,000 megawatts (MW).[1]Under the original agreement, 90% of the electricity generated would be sold to China and the rest would be available for Myanmar to use for free (Burmese border, November 29, 2018). The deal has been heavily criticized in Myanmar: according to Khin Khin Kyaw Kyee, a senior fellow at the Myanmar Institute of Strategy and Policy, many Myanmar citizens see it as a "one-sided" deal, mostly pro-China, with few benefits. . .. to Burma. There are also concerns that China will seize control of one of Myanmar's "most important water sources", making the country "more vulnerable" to Chinese pressure.[2]

In addition, there are concerns about the social and environmental costs that the local population will have to bear. The mega dam is expected to flood 766 square kilometers (km) of land in Kachin State, and more than 15,000 people are likely to be displaced and deprived of their livelihoods. Flooding will destroy the area's rich biodiversity, disrupting agricultural and fishing land both in the immediate area and downstream. An additional concern is that the dam is in an earthquake-prone area, and damage to the dam in the event of an earthquake could lead to flooding of Myitkyina, which is 40 kilometers downstream (Kachin Development Network Group, 12.09.2016).

Opposition to the Myitsone project is widespread in Myanmar. A 2017 survey by the Yangon School of Political Science found that 85% of people in Myanmar oppose the construction of the dam (Burma time, January 3, 2017). Opposition to the project became a national campaign as early as 2011.[3]There are several reasons why the dam has become a national concern. For one thing, it was Myanmar's military junta that ruled in favor of the project, and the details of the deal have never been made public. The Myitsone project entered the agenda of the pro-democracy movement and gained support across the country. In addition, the dam's location has raised cultural concerns: it is close to the source of the Irrawaddy River, Myanmar's livelihood and the heart of its culture. The people of Myanmar revere this area as the cradle of their country and civilization (Kachin Development Network Group, 09/12/2016). This cultural connection to the Irrawaddy evokes strong emotions in all Myanmar people and sparked opposition to the dam project from Myanmar citizens.

Furthermore, the PRC's bullying of Myanmar into the Myitsone project has not only angered the people of Myanmar; It has also shifted opposition to the project from a movement focused on environmental and social costs to one focused on the project's impact on Myanmar's sovereignty (O Irrawaddy, April 1st). So it's not just the Kachin community that opposes the Myitsone project. His opponents include people of "more than one ethnicity or ethnic group": people from all walks of life, with different ethnicities, and from different geographic regions oppose the dam project.[4]In recent months, Myanmar's civil society has been working to unify the campaign against dams. For example, on April 1, civil society activists, writers, and environmentalists from across the country gathered in Yangon to strategize against the dam project. They formed a national committee to coordinate the campaign and warned the national opposition government if it decides to go ahead with the controversial project (O Irrawaddy, April 1st).

Chinese interests in the Myitsone dam project

It was the hydroelectric capacity of the Myitsone Dam and its value to China's Yunnan Province that initially prompted the PRC to go ahead with the project. The electricity generated by the dam was considered useful for the industrialization and development of Yunnan. However, in recent years, Yunnan has developed greater electricity production capacity and even exports its surplus. Chinese analysts say the PRC's interest in the Myitsone dam is waning and therefore Beijing has reportedly taken a "softer stance" to revive the dam project. Apparently, he is interested in pursuing Myanmar "for damages for breach of contract terms, rather than simply restarting the project" (IPP Verification, April 1st).

Why has China increased pressure on Myanmar in recent months? According to an Indian businessman in Yangon, the Myitsone project now serves as a "swap chip" for China. By lobbying Myanmar for the Myitsone project, he hopes to "get concessions for other projects in Myanmar" including the Kyaukphyu deep-water port and several smaller hydroelectric projects.[5]

The suspension of the Myitsone project concerned the PRC not so much because of the "loss of access to hydroelectric power, but because of the loss of face suffered." Beijing was angry that Myanmar, despite its "extreme dependence" on China, "dared to snub its sponsor" by canceling a Chinese-backed project. The importance of this "loss of face" factor has grown in recent years, particularly in the context of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as China "does not want other BRI members to think they can suspend or cancel a project anyway". severe consequences."[6]

The dilemma facing the Myanmar government

As the Kachin campaign against the dam gained momentum in 2010/11, it was not difficult for the NLD to take a position on the controversial Myitsone project: it was then a party fighting against the military regime and joining the demands of the Kachin activists. been quick to cancel the project, pointing to the government's unpopular policies and opaque decision-making. However, since the NLD came to power in 2016, it has not abandoned the project or clarified its position. In fact, it has not even published the results of a report from a 20-member commission it created to review the dam project and its impact (O Irrawaddy, March 14).

The NLD government faces a dilemma: if it cancels the Myitsone project, it will be forced to pay $800 million to China and face China's wrath. It would also undermine investor confidence in Myanmar and could harm the country's economic recovery (global times, February 21st). Myanmar's dependence on China, which had decreased after democratization and subsequent improved relations with Western countries, has increased in the past two years in the context of the Rohingya conflict. Western countries have criticized the NLD government's handling of the Rohingya conflict, and Myanmar needs China's support to prevent Western criticism and actions in global forums such as the United Nations Security Council. Given this dependency, the Myanmar government cannot afford to anger Beijing by shutting down the Myitsone project.

On the other hand, giving the green light to revive the Myitsone project would make the NLD government in Myanmar unpopular. Going against the will of the people jeopardizes the government's legitimacy and could harm the NLD's electoral performance in next year's general elections. Protests against the decision could break out across the country, affecting Myanmar's stability. Importantly, the revival of the project is "highly likely" to unleash "another wave of anti-China sentiment" in Myanmar, affecting the future of BRI projects in the country.[7]

chinese calculations

There are signs that the NLD government is considering a change in policy: in late January, U Thaung Tun, Myanmar's minister for investment and foreign trade affairs, said his government was considering reducing the size of the dam and moving it or offer China an alternative project. (Mizzima, January 30th). However, he did not explain the government's preference.

The NLD government appears to be preparing the public for its decision. On March 14, Suu Kyi called on people to be more open-minded and see the Myitsone project from a broader perspective. Speaking to residents of Pyay in the Bago region, he said the government will make a final decision on the project after considering political, social, economic and environmental concerns. Looking at it from just one angle would lead to the wrong decision, she said. Importantly, Suu Kyi stated that his government would not cancel a project approved by his predecessor simply because that project is inconsistent with current government policy (O Irrawaddy, March 14).

The government is apparently considering reviving the Myitsone project, possibly with changes to its size and location to address public concerns. While the changes may allay local fears to some degree, they are unlikely to reduce widespread opposition to the project. Any decision to go ahead with the project is seen in Myanmar as giving in to Chinese pressure and thus undermining Myanmar's sovereignty. Kachin activists have also repeatedly stated that they will accept nothing less than the total cancellation of the Myitsone project.

The question remains whether the PRC wants to continue with the Myitsone project. After reducing Myitsone's power demand in Yunnan, it could reject Myanmar's compromise offer in Myitsone. China may have calculated that while Myitsone could supply more power, a larger Chinese role in the Kyaukphyu port would strengthen its strategic and economic interests, in which case it can be expected to demand financial compensation for the stalled power project. the dam, even if it pushes for concessions on the Kyaukphyu project. Regardless, it remains the "China Advantage" in the dispute between China and Myanmar over the Myitsone project.

Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is a freelance researcher and journalist based in Bengaluru, India. He has written extensively on South Asian peace and conflict, political and security issues.the diplomat,asian timesand the Jamestown FoundationTerrorism Monitoring.


[1]The Myitsone Dam is one of seven dams and the largest planned on the Irrawaddy River and its tributaries. The seven dams will have a total installed generating capacity of 21,600 megawatts.

[2]Author interview with Khin Khin Kyaw Kyee, Senior Research Fellow at the Myanmar Institute for Strategy and Policy, April 12.

[3] ibid.


[5]Author interview with an Indian businessman from Yangon, April 12.


[7]Khin Khin Kyaw Kyee, n. 2.


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