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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.
Chinese hydroelectric projects squeeze Burmese residents, many of whom have been left in the dark.
Myanmar. The people get nothing — not even the power generated by the projects — but lose their land, their livelihoods and in the case of Yeywa, an ancient religious site to boot.
The general template, Steinberg says, is that the Chinese offer to build the dam, but in exchange they get to operate it for 50 years. Some 90 percent of the electricity generated by the these dams are destined to state-owned enterprises in Yunnan Province, which then sells the electricity to the booming metropolises along China’s Pacific seaboard.
This helps explain why much of Burma remains dark, and why so much internal resentment has begun to build up against the Chinese. Hard figures are hard to come by, but a visitor to Burma can recognize the tell-tale click of the electrical grid shutting down and a nearby generator kicking into gear. Blackouts are common in Yangon, Mandalay and other urban centers. Meanwhile, rural Burma remains without any power at all, giving rise to a cottage industry in solar panels used to charge cell phones and computers.
So far as Burmese hydropower projects go, it appears the villagers of Pein got off light. The villagers we spoke with insisted that no physical violence ever accompanied the forced relocation of the village. According to human rights groups, this stands in stark contrast to projects within those states dominated by ethnic minorities such as the Kachin, the Shan, or the Karen peoples.
More from GlobalPost: Chasing riches in Burma? Mind the Karen guerrillas
“The military usually accompanies the Chinese as soon as they go in to do feasibility studies,” says Mang. In the past, locals have often been conscripted into hard, unpaid labor, and their villages uprooted without either compensation or, as in the case of Pein, the provision of an alternative site.
There is anecdotal evidence that this may have changed as Burmese president Thein Sein began orchestrating a rapid turn toward the West after his 2011 appointment by Senior General Than Shwe, who ruled the country for 19 years.
Last September 30, Sein surprised foreign observers, his own people and the Chinese themselves by suspending work on the Myitsone Dam.
Sein cited both environmental and economic concerns (the dam would have flooded private rubber and teak plantations), but his act was widely viewed as a concession to the widespread, and unusually vocal outrage that a broad swath of Burmese expressed at the prospect of a dam located at the headwaters of the nation’s most sacred river. If completed, the dam would be the 15th largest dam in the world, rivaling the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.
The dam was being constructed by the China Power Investment Corporation (CPIC )— a state-owned behemoth that supplies 10 percent of China’s electricity. David Steinberg, a professor at Georgetown University and longtime Burma scholar, describes how local Burmese viewed the project.
“[CPIC] brought in foreign labor. So the Burmese don’t get jobs. They don’t get electricity. They get their land confiscated, and they may or may not get money for that.” According to Environmental Investigation Agency, an activist group that surreptitiously sends observers to sites like Myitsone, CPIC was even trucking dirt from its excavations back to China.
Yet by all accounts China did not anticipate the extent of Burmese opposition to the project. According to International Rivers’ Mang, this was CPIC’s first project outside China.
“Dealing with environmental protection, compensation, community relations — all those tricky issues are dealt with by the provincial government when you’re building a dam inside China,” says Mang.
Diplomatic cables from the US Embassy written in 2011 say the dam is a “joint collaboration” between CPIC and Asia World, one of Burma’s largest conglomerates. Asia World is owned by Lo Hsing Han and his son-in-law Stephen Law. According to the US Treasury Department, which in 2010 announced economic sanctions against Han, Law, Asia World, and all its subsidiaries, Han “has been one of the world’s key heroin traffickers dating back to the early 1970s.”
Both Han and Law are on the US “specially designated nationals” list barring them from traveling to America.
Located within the Kachin State in the northern mountains of Burma, the dam would flood 47 villages and cause massive deforestation. But worst of all the Myitsone Dam was located at the confluence of Mali River and the N'Mai River, regarded by the Kachin as the sacred site where the Irrawaddy, or Ayeyarwaddy, is born. Earlier this year, Burma ordered China to remove its construction equipment — and the reported 20,000 workers still based in Barracks in the Kachin State — to return to China.
Mang and other analysts interviewed for this article agreed that the Chinese behind Myitsone had a tin ear, ignoring anti-Chinese rumblings for years until it was too late. Instead they walked into a perfect storm, in which Sein was able to score a major international and domestic coup by putting a stop to a widely unpopular project that would, after all, have offered little benefit to the people he might increasingly call a constituent.
But that doesn’t mean that CPIC will give up easily.
“All my sources inside China say that it’s inevitable, that all the early work has already been done,” says Mang. “But my Burmese partners say, 'No way.' They won’t ever accept a dam on the confluence of the Irrawaddy.”
All of China's projects must now be viewed through the lens of Myitsone Dam. But Chinese companies have been quick to adapt their approach in the pursuit of their strategic interests in Burma.
This report was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.