What used to be a model project among Chinese overseas investments now scars the hearts of Chinese overseas engineers and strains the Sino-Myanmar relationship. Myitsone Dam, a project hailed for its scale — rivaling that of Three-Gorges Dam in China — was shelved within a year of its construction. While reports on Myitsone escalated, those who actually witnessed the project were only a few. Lack of contact with reality created a vacuum well suited for conspiracy theories. Numerous complaints including “Holy Mountain Dragon damage”, “lack of environmental assessment” and “inadequate corporate social responsibility” continually plagued the Myitsone Hydropower Project. Recently, a group of reporters visited Myitsone in the hope of uncovering some hitherto unknown truths.
Is it a Holy Land?
42 kilometers north of Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, Myitsone, means “confluence” in the local language. Two tributaries of the Irrawaddy River , N’Mai River and Mali River, converge here. This led to a picture of the two rivers embracing a mountain being formed. But in recent years, it becane very popular to dub the place as the Kachin’ “Holy Mountain Dragon”. In chats the reporter had with locals, the locals talked about the stories they heard as kids and school children, mostly picturing Myitsone as a river confluence. It is the birthplace of Irrawaddy River. However, no clear statement portrayed the land as the “Dragon”, the “Holy Land”.
Actually, as early as 1952 the Myanmar government planned to open up a hydropower dam in the area. In 1979, they surveyed the area. In 2002, Myanmar government asked KEPCO, a Japanese company to provide a comprehensive development plan for Myitsone Hydropower Dam around the confluence of Mali River and N’Mai River. Japan eventually withdrew from the project, citing concerns about conflict with local militias . In addition, the power produced from the dam would have been simply too much for the country, and it was not within Japan’sve the power to sell electricity to China. In the end, the only country with enough strength and willpower to take over this project is China. During the 3rd China-ASEAN Expo (CAEXPO) on October 31, 2006, the Myanmar government asked China Power Investment Corporation (CPI) to develop hydropower power stations around the Irrawaddy River and Chindwin River. During December of that year, CPI signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Myanmar First Ministry of Electric Power regarding hydropower projects along the upstream area of of the Irrawaddy River.
To promote this project, CPI invited the most powerful leaders from the six tribes of Kachin State (Jinghpaw, Lisu, Rawang etc.) to discuss about the project. All six tribes’ leaders welcomed the Chinese investment in Myitsone to address the problems of poverty and lack of electricity At the time, not a single chief described Myitsone as their holy land or opposed the hydropower dam construction. From 2008 to 2009, social impact assessment experts conducted a willingness of migration study in the area. Of the 300 questionnaires returned, no one ever mentioned that Myitsone was a holy place.
So, why do Kachins suddenly oppose the dam construction in Myitsone? Curios to find out, the reporter arrived at the confluence. As it was Christmas Day, many tourists came to the confluence for boat rides, barbecues, and drinks. While chatting with them, the locals revealed this place had a long tradition of barbecue and drinking. The reporter could not help wondering how it was right to barbecue and drink here : if it was really a holy ground ?
In the confluence area, you could clearly spot a golden pagoda looking past the village. The pagoda had a long past, and was rebuilt in 1972. Even more interesting was the fact that they dug up a copper book during its 1972 reconstruction. Engraved in the book was a prophecy, “In future, Myitsone’s water will be widened, and deepened. The river will reach China. Trade flourishes.” One could clearly see a long tradition of Buddhism here.
Here comes the question: in the beginning, Kachins believe in Animism. Eventually most locals believed in Christianity. If Myitsone is a holy ground for Kachins, how could Kachins allow a pagoda to be built on their holy ground?
In order to consolidate the idea of the holy land, some protesters built a monument at the confluence after an anti-dam demonstration in 2014. The myth of Myitsone as a “Holy Mountain Dragon” became ever more prevalent. So what is the real story?
“Long Tradition” unfounded
In his article, Myanmar expert Shi Anda analyzed, “Jinghpaws in the Kachin region who opposed the dam construction used the Jinghpaw mythical dragon totem worship to protest against the construction of the hydropower dam.” Kachin Development Networking Group brought up a series of anti-dam questions and reasons based on mythology. This is an NGO founded in Thailand by Kachins from Myanmar and overseas. The NGO had published an anti-dam report in 2007. The so-called Kachin dragon totem worship was used as an excuse to oppose the construction of Myitsone Hydropower Dam. The scope of dragon totem worship has already exceeded that of the Kachin tribes. The Kachin dragon culture was first found in the folktale of Ning Guanshe marrying a daughter of dragon. The story may have derived from a Jinghpaw chief marrying a woman from another tribe, but it does not have any natural connection with Myitsone. In addition, Kachins do not have a long history of settlement in Myitsone.
Besides the Kachins, Shans also live in the plains and valleys at lower altitudes of the Kachin State. They account for more than 50% of the local population (Shan in Burmese, Dai in Chinese). Before the British took over the Kachin State in the 19th century, Kachin was under a Shan chieftain’s governance for a long time. They implemented a mutually exclusive autonomous system. Society was divided into three classes: officers, freemen and slaves. They believed in Animism from primeval times, i.e. that all objects possess spiritual essences. Kachins did not have their own national language before foreign missionaries created a script for them. The earliest records of Kachins could only be found in the ancient Chinese Han and Dai texts, or by word-of-mouth and customs passed down to succeeding generations.
Anoyjer legend about their origin, according to “Jinghpaw Traditional Festival Annotation” in Yunnan, China, as well as “Jinghpaw Historical Origins” and “Source of Jinghpaw” in Myanmar’s Kachin State, is that Kachin (Jinghpaw) tribe is the descendant of a brother and sister who hid themselves in a cowhide drum during a flood and came out after the water receded. Jinghpaw experts think that the name “Jinghpaw” came from those who lived around the salt mines or salt-producing regions of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Being a mountain tribe, Kachins maintain a strong mountain lifestyle. During the long reign of the Shans, Kachins never migrated to the lowlands.
Through exchanges with Kachins and Shans in the Myitkyina region, one learns that the Kachins migrated to the N’Mai River and Mali River region and settled around the rolling mountains. There they began their primeval livelihood based on slash-and-burn agriculture. To garner enough food supply, they had to keep harassing Shan villages in the nearby valleys. So the repeatedly harassed Shans had to retreat along the N’Mai River and Mali River. This kind of e situation went on for a few hundred years. Then around 1940, a few Kachins arrived at Myitsone, or the confluence of N’Mai River and Mali River. From here, the river is named “Irrawaddy”.
History suggests that the Kachins settled in the mountains, and moved into Myitsone relatively recently. Therefore the long tradition of “Holy Mountain Dragon” is unfounded.
Why Resist Myitsone Hydropower Dam?
If you ask Kachins today, they will tell you, without a second thought, that Myitsone is a “holy land” and that a hydropower dam can thus not be built there. A fabricated mythology, once publicized, gradually comes to be accepted as a “consensus” among Kachins and even Burmese. However, is it really just the “holy land” problem that stopped the Chinese dam project?
According to the Sino-Myanmar agreement, one construction power station and several grade seven dams are planned upstream of Myitkyina along Irrawaddy River, including Myitsone, Chibwe, Pashe, Phizaw, Khaunglanphu, Lakin and Laiza. Apart from the stalled Myitsone project, the other projects cannot start because of regional conflicts there as well. All Irrawaddy River hydropower development projects are temporarily halted. It is not hard to see that the “holy land” theory cannot explain why all projects cannot restart.
On the accusation of the Chinese lacking in environmental assessment, Chinese companies had to swallow the bitter pill in silence. As early as in 2005, Changjiang Institute of Surveying, Planning, Design and Research (CISPDR) started development design work in the river basins, organizing numerous geological, cultural and environmental experts for on-site investigations. In 2009, more than 100 environmental experts from CISPDR, Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Hydroecology, South China Botanical Garden, South China Endangered Animals Shelter and Myanmar Biodiversity and Conservation Union formed a joint expert working group, which jointly assessed the environmental impact of the Irrawaddy River hydropower development. The joint working group conducted special investigations around the basin areas of the seven hydropower dams, including local plants, vegetation, mammals, birds and butterflies. They had numerous exchanges and discussions with Burmese experts. By May 2010, “Irrawaddy River Upstream Hydropower Development Environmental Impact Statement” was completed and the Government of Myanmar approved the project in January 2011. In terms of corporate social responsibility, CPI had contributed its share on multiple fronts for many years.
In 2011, Myanmar President Thein Sein suspended the Myitsone project on grounds of the opposirion by “public opinion”. Speaking of specific public opinion, the most important naturally comes from the Kachin oppositions. In the end, it is the group’s interests that plagued the project.
On the one hand, Myitsone Hydropower Dam will flood 390 square kilometers of land, accounting for nearly half of the Kachin Independence Army controlled territory. On the other hand, all future incomes from the project will go to the Government of Myanmar on behalf of the whole country. Naturally, a cost without any benefit will not convince the Kachin army.
A prestigious 85-year-old local, Zaogan, also confirmed this assertion. He said that while the Myitsone project could be stalled by demonstrations, the Kachin army can also demonstrate for its resumption for getting benefits. But the internal distribution of benefits will have to be dealt inside the country. Peace has yet returned after the June 2011 clashes in northern Myanmar,. Therefore benefit distribution talks between the Burmese central government and the Kachin army will be difficult. The game between multiple parties has reached a deadlock that is hard to resolve.
Together with years of regular anti-dam campaigns from churches, fabricated negative news to demonize Chinese companies, and influence of radio and publications on local populations, there are still many roadblocks before the project can be brought back to life. In addition, Myanmar is going through a transitional period in which public opinion can be swayed easily. Some organizations successfully transferred public discontent with the militia to the Sino-Myanmar projects. Chinese funded projects became the scapegoat for variious kinds of emotional discontent. There lie the real roots of the problem.
(The author is a researcher at Huaqiao University Maritime Silk Road Research Institute)