Connect to share and comment

The Burma Road serves as the gateway between Myanmar and the rising empire on its border. It is the central trade route feeding China’s voracious appetite for the resources — including energy, natural resources and food — it desperately needs to sustain its population of 1 billion people. Here China’s pervasive presence, its sophisticated exertion of soft power, is evident at every turn.

Burma Road Yeywa Dam
Villagers displaced by the Yeywa Dam scratch out a living in a new community. The village has no water supply nearby so villagers have to take an ox cart to the Myitnge River a mile away. There is no irrigation, no shade and many familes from this ancient community refused to settle here, destroying a community that is hundreds of years old. The government installed electric pylons but the villagers are unable to afford the subscription fee. (Gary Knight/VII/GlobalPost)

Myanmar: A power play on the Irrawaddy River

Chinese hydroelectric projects squeeze Burmese residents, many of whom have been left in the dark.

YEYWADDY, Myanmar — The villages along the Myitnge River have been inhabited since medieval kings first located their royal palace in Ava, where the Myitnge flows into the Irrawaddy, the flowing soul of Burma, or as some scholars translate it, “the river that brings blessings to the people.”

But there is nothing ancient about Yeywaddy, a small settlement that possesses all the charm and character of a refugee camp, which in some ways is what it is. Red dirt lanes meet at square angles. Woven bamboo shacks and small gardens of straggly vegetables occupy some plots. Others are simply marked in string and cinderblock. The village looks half-abandoned.

The people of Yeywaddy are, more properly speaking, the people of Pein, a village once located along the banks of the Myitnge some ten kilometers upriver. Two years ago the residents of Pein were forced out of their ancestral village to make way for the Yeywa Dam, which went into operation in 2010. Their village — along with the Sappa Sukha Htattaw, a 1000-year-old Buddhist temple — now lies submerged. The largest hydroelectric project in Burma, the dam produces some 790 megawatts of electricity, most of which passes just over the heads of the people in Yeywaddy Village, on its way to Mandalay, and then to China. 

The new village is difficult to irrigate, the soil sandy and unproductive. Every day the village boys take a cart drawn by two oxen down the rocky path to the river, and fill giant oil barrels with water. This will be used for both domestic and agricultural use. Pein’s traditional sources of income — logging, fishing, and farming — have all become far more difficult here.

To add insult to injury, when the residents of the new village asked to be hooked up to the electricity that now flows from the dam site down to Mandalay, they were told it would cost $100 per household just to install each meter. The villagers laugh darkly at this story.

“The military usually accompanies the Chinese as soon as they go in to do feasibility studies.”
~Grace Mang, International Rivers

“That’s about three months’ income for us,” one says.

“The old village had 177 households,” says a thin, cautious man wearing the traditional Burmese longyi, a colorful, ankle-length cloth bound around the waist. As we speak a uniformed Burmese soldier stops outside the courtyard where we are standing. He eyes us suspiciously, but moves on. More villagers gather around us, but when asked their names they stare at the ground nervously and remain silent.

“So the government set up 177 plots of land in this place,” adds the thin man.

Not everyone in Pein followed orders, however. Many of Pein’s residents simply drifted away. And because the military junta that rules Burma didn’t classify Pein as a village, no one received compensation for their land. Neither were they offered jobs at the dam site, they say.

“There are 75 households here,” says the man.

The crowd gathered around breaks into nervous snickers. A translator explains that the villagers believe that even this figure has been inflated by the government.

While the Burmese government does not release figures on how the hydroelectricity is distributed, the junta has touted the dams as part of a larger strategy to electrify the nation.

But analysts like Elizabeth Economy with the Council on Foreign Relations have a hard time believing it isn’t bound for China’s Yunnan Province. As with some 43 other hydropower projects in Burma — all of them built within the last twenty years, following the thawing of relations between Burma and its giant neighbor to the east — China delivers the expertise, the equipment, and in the case of Yeywa, the lion’s share of the $600 million USD it required to build the dam.

In exchange China receives an exclusive license to operate the dams for 50 years before the works are handed over to Burma, and much of the electricity, says Grace Mang, the China program director at International Rivers, an NGO that studies the impacts of dams on the environment and local communities.

“It’s almost inconceivable [China] wouldn’t get some of that electricity. That’s how these projects operate,” says David Steinberg, a distinguished professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown University, and a widely recognized expert on Burmese-Chinese relations.

The village of Pein is an example of how Chinese-funded infrastructure projects have long operated in