Just a few months before 2012 by-elections, a group of concerned citizens worried about the fate of Myitsone gathered together at a location overlooking the confluence of three rivers in Myitkyina, Kachin State. A man walked to a podium with the assistance of a friend and said, with tears in his eyes, that the Ayeyarawady River was the lifeline of the whole of Myanmar and it's endangered and near extinct flora and fauna would be diminished forever if and when the planned Myitsone hydropower dam was built there. The man was U Ohn an eminent environmentalist who loves his country.
Thanks to public awareness campaigns launched by environmentalists, protest campaigns launched by CSOs, and media coverage about the dangers of the dam, protests against it construction were launched. The Myitsone dam project consists of building seven dams with the main dam at the confluence (Myitsone) of the Maykha and Malikha Rivers, five more dams on Maykha and a dam on Malikha Rivers will also be built for power generation.
The estimated installed capacity of the project is 21,600 MW. According to 2015 statistics, Myanmar is currently generating just over 5,000 MW in the entire country so the installed capacity of the Myitsone dam will be over four times that of total power generation in the country. The then military regime and China Power Investment Corporation signed a MoU to build the dam in 2006.
After completion, 90% of the power generated will be sold to China and Myanmar will receive the remaining 10%.
At that time, the deafening sounds of protest against Myitsone and calls for ‘Save the Irrawaddy’ echoed throughout the entire country. As a result, in 2012, President Thein Sein made the stunning announcement that the project would be suspended during his five-year tenure and he won the hearts of the people.
However, more protests against other dam projects on Thanlwin River were heard in early 2015. The MOUs of these dam projects were signed by the then military regime too. In these campaigns, local people, NGOs and local MPs and legislators joined hands in protest.
These proposed dams on the Thanlwin River are Konlong, Naungpha and Tasang or Mongton dam in Shan State, Ywathit dam in Kayah (Karenni) State and Hatgyi dam in Kayin State.
The hydropower dams to be built on the Thanlwin River will generate electric power 40% of which will be sold to China, another 40% to Thailand, and the remaining 20% will be for Myanmar.
In the 2015 general elections, National League for Democracy (NLD) party led by Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide victory and the new government led by President HtinKyaw was installed in 2016. A few days after the swearing-in ceremony, a challenge was issued to the new government by the Chinese government which raised the question of how it would handle these dam projects.
Chinese Ambassador to Myanmar Mr Hong Lian told reporters at a press conference held at his residence on March 4: “We hope the new government will settle this issue patiently and it will not reach the stage of paying compensation. We will explore ways for getting an acceptable negotiated settlement with the new government.”
China Power Investment Corporation (CPI) issued its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) report on the Myitsone dam project during the term of President Thein Sein. BBC news on December 27, 2013, reported that CPI Managing Director Li KwamHua said these dam projects had full safety measures, have international standards and provide good benefits. He said CPI was one of 500 reputable companies in the world in meeting international standards, and Myanmar should proceed with these projects to meet the growing demand of power in the country.
But local people staged demonstrations against this dam project as they could not accept it. Jar On who was born in Tanphe village near the proposed dam site and brought up there said: “We rely on the confluence of Maykha and Malikha Rivers for our livelihood so we don’t want this dam project to be built here. Not only me,this is the wish and desire of all Tanphe people. We absolutely don’t want it. We absolutely object to it.”
Tanphe is the nearest village to the dam site. The entire village was forcibly relocated to the newly built Aung Myin Thar village in 2011 by the government. Without choice, they have to live in the new model village where there is a school and a hospital but for their livelihood, the villagers still rely on the area of old Tanphe village.
“Local people need not worry about food as soon as we enter the forest. First, we put our rice pot on the fire and then enter the forest to find vegetables and fish for our meals. Moreover, the forest is for our livelihood too. We can pan for gold in the stream. In this way, we can manage to feed our family and both ends meet. Myitsone gives us everything we need and it is so good for us,” Jar On added.
Environmentalist Win Myo Thu once wrote an article which says the dam projects proposed in the Myitsone area will not only have an impact in Myitsone but also downstream and up to the delta region. These dams will have an environmental impact and will affect the sustainability of the ecology and environment. These dams may create the greater probability of earthquakes and further analysis of the impact on freshwater fisheries and subsequent escalation of fish prices in the country is needed.
Similarly, proposed dams to be built on Thanlwin River in Shan, Kayin and Kayah States, will have an impact on Mon State too. Former Lower House MP and current Mon State Parliament Deputy Speaker Aung Naing Oo said, “An MP from Shan State asked a question in parliament in 2014 regarding the dams to be built on Thanlwin River and relocation of villagers from submerged areas. The government confirmed the projects and they are almost certain to be built. We cannot accept them.”
He also said, ”My constituency Chaungsone is at the mouth of Thanlwin with a mix of fresh and sea water. The people in my constituency rely on the river and forest for their livelihood. They earn their income from fishery and forest produce. If we lose these rivers and forests, fish species will become extinct and the forest will be damaged. So our constituency cannot accept these dam projects.”
A report released by Myanmar Rivers Network on January 19, 2015, says local people are being forcibly relocated because of these dam projects and government troops give security cover for these forced relocations.
Myanmar Rivers Network spokesman Sai Khay Sai once said, “Right to ownership of natural resources will be the source of conflict in the country. If we continue these controversial dam projects without negotiations between the two sides it will pour oil on the civil war conflict fire.”
The building of such dam projects should be decided by political choice. But decision-making power should be given to all the people too. At least six million people living along the Irrawaddy valley should be informed and educated on these projects. Then let them decide by themselves. Only with this sort of co-decision making power should dam projects be carried out, Win Myo Thu said in an article entitled, ‘Myitsone filled with traps’.
Ministry of Electricity and Energy, Assistant Secretary (Electricity) San Yuu told Mizzima, “We are doing these projects for domestic consumption only. Myitsone has been suspended. Thanlwin dams are still in the feasibility study stage. We have not yet received all reports on them. Anyway, we will carry out the projects that are accepted by the people. We will not carry out projects which are unacceptable to the people.”
Win Myo Thu wrote in his article that the new government was expected to work in accordance with the wishes of the people. The people put all their hopes in this NLD government.
89-year old octogenarian environmentalist U Ohn, who devotes his whole life to protection and conservation of the forest and environment said with full confidence, after hearing the government’s plans for the future of Myitsone, “I believe Aung San Suu Kyi will not do what people don’t like.”