Whenever two existential threats—economic deprivation and violation of dignity—merge and hurt society, the people of Burma revolt. Thus the construction of a massive hydro-power dam at Myitsone, where the Maykha and Malikha rivers meet to become the mighty Irrawaddy, mainly to serve China’s energy needs, has spawned a “Save the Irrawaddy” campaign that has become an unprecedented rallying ground for the people of Burma to take contentious action against a new regime.
Within the “civilian” government of President Thein Sein, however, this issue has become a source of division. Ministers and parliamentary leaders have taken conflicting views over how to resolve this crisis. That some moderate members of the regime have publicly called for an overall review of the project in transparent manner is a welcome sign. Unless the regime manages an acceptable resolution to this issue, however, the “Save the Irrawaddy” discourse could gradually grow into something else: an “Irrawaddy Uprising”. This issue is so close to home for the people of Burma because it involves not only national development but also national dignity. More importantly, the public’s rising outrage will put three key policy players—Thein Sein, opposition activist Aung San Suu Kyi and the Chinese government—in a serious political dilemma.
Let’s start with the facts. The project to fragment the Irrawaddy by building dams began in December 2006, and the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between China and Burma on the development, operation and delivery of electricity from the hydro-power project was signed in 2009. Along with Burma’s privately owned, military-backed Asia World Company, China’s state-owned China Power Investment Corporation (CPI) will dam the Irrawaddy at eight locations. The largest of these dams, and the one causing the greatest outcry, is being built just below the confluence. The reservoir area is 766 km, which is bigger than Singapore. Moreover, the Myitsone dam is located less than 100 km from a major tectonic fault line. Experts warn that an earthquake could cause the collapse of the dam, with devastating consequences.
Local Kachin communities have been calling on the Burmese and Chinese governments to stop the dam project since 2007. A few Burman civil society members and writers have also called attention to the deteriorating condition of the Irrawaddy River. However, the mainstream media and the general public remained largely silent on these issues until a confidential Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report was leaked to social activists and the media in June-July of 2011.
The EIA report, which was fully funded by CPI and conducted by a team of Burmese and Chinese scientists, was produced in October 2009 but never made public. The report clearly recommends that the Myitsone dam project be abandoned.
“If Myanmar [Burmese] and Chinese sides were really concerned about environmental issues and aimed at sustainable development of the country, there is no need for such a big dam to be constructed at the confluence of the Ayeyawady [Irrawaddy] River. Instead, two smaller dams could be built above Myitsone to produce nearly the same amount of electricity,” the reports states. It also notes the lack of a Social Impact Assessment and strongly recommends that one be carried out by competent social scientists before approval of the project.
Aside from the environmental, economic and social damage the construction of the dams is causing, another thorny issue is the fact that the chief beneficiary of the project, both in terms of power consumption and profits from the sale of the generated energy, is China, which will buy up to 90 percent of the electricity and keep some 70 percent of the profits.
When researchers, campaigners and independent media organizations started ringing alarm bells by citing the Chinese-funded EIA report, the issue captured the national imagination and prompted a sense of public urgency to protect the river. Calls to save the Irrawaddy are now expressed through every conceivable medium: articles, cartoons, songs, petitions, public statements, religious sermons and interviews with experts.
In August, the government finally got around to defending the construction of the Myitsone dam in state-run newspapers, claiming that the project would have no negative impact on the flow of the Irrawaddy River or on the lives and livelihoods of local people. However, the private weeklies—most notably the popular Eleven Media journal—and foreign broadcasters pushed back, calling for more transparency regarding the EIA, details of the MoU and dam construction-related information.
The watershed moment came when Minister of Electric Power (1) Zaw Min, who claimed that “no one in Myanmar knows and possesses more experience than me concerning hydro-power,” told local media on Sept 11: “Regardless of objections from any sources, the construction of the Myitsone Hydropower Project will not be abolished. … We will never rescind it.”
Zaw Min's remarks triggered public outrage. The influential Eleven Media immediately responded by collecting the views of various leading journalists, public intellectuals and even members of the regime’s Parliament. Highly respected veteran journalist Ludu Sein Win defiantly warned that people would take to the streets to defend the Irrawaddy River if civil and non-confrontational means didn't work. The Internet posting of the report drew hundreds of angry comments from readers within days, and social media and various public actions have further invigorated the momentum of the “Save the Irrawaddy” campaign.
If history is any guide, the “Save the Irrawaddy” discourse will gradually grow into the “Irrawaddy Uprising” because the emergence of this issue coincides with worsening poverty among the majority of the general public, caused by a struggling export sector hit by fluctuating currency exchange rates. In the past, whenever the severe economic deprivation of the general public was compounded by unjust events that violated the dignity of the people—for example, in 1987, when the demonetization of the Burmese currency was coupled with police brutality against students, and again in 2007, when fuel prices were hiked by 500 percent fuel price hike and police assaulted Buddhist monks in Pakokku—the people have revolted against incumbent regimes.
Of course, the uprising in itself will not yield a positive policy outcome. The effective societal pressures could force the policymakers (rarely as a unified entity but mostly likely a winning faction of them) to intervene in the situation and accommodate a mediated outcome.
In the meantime, public pressure is growing, presenting a serious challenge to the Thein Sein administration, as well as to its chief domestic interlocutor, Aung San Suu Kyi, and its key international ally, China.
Over the past few months, Thein Sein has captured the imagination of politically active members of Burmese society, both inside the country and abroad, with his various initiatives, including his meeting with Suu Kyi, efforts to convene poverty alleviation workshops, and an invitation to exiles to return home. However, if he fails to mitigate the rising tide of public anger over the Irrawaddy crisis, this could trump any credit he might receive for his otherwise laudable efforts.
However, there are a number of steps that Thein Sein could take to address the Irrawaddy issue, such as getting the Parliament to enact a much-needed environmental law, suspending the dam project to conduct more independent assessments with the assistance of Mekong River Commission, or choosing the EIA-proposed alternative plan of building two small dams north of Myitsone.
Of course, these measures are not without risk for the Thein Sein regime, which is rife with internal rivalries. However, there is reason to believe that they would enjoy support among at least some in the regime. Minister of Industry (2) Soe Thein, for instance, recently called for a review of the project and suggested exploring the option of building two small dams north of Myitsone, as proposed in the EIA report. However, this would likely anger China, the indispensable patron of the regime for international protection and financial assistance, which has already invested heavily in the project.
In fact, this is where Suu Kyi could play a role. As the democracy darling of the West, Suu Kyi could bring what the regime needs from the international community and ease Thein Sein’s disproportionate reliance on Beijing. By cooperating with Suu Kyi, Thein Sein could win international support and thus gain more leverage in dealing with Beijing, which could be persuaded to accept the need for a transitional Burma to balance between political stability and honoring business contracts of previous regimes, at least in the short term.
However, the Lady herself is in a political dilemma: should she lead the public in calling for a halt to the Myitsone project, or simply follow the people's lead? In August, she weighed in with a letter appealing to both the Burmese and Chinese governments to “reassess the scheme and cooperate to find solutions that would prevent undesirable consequences and thus allay the fears of all who are anxious to protect the Irrawaddy.” But since then, she has not followed up with any concrete program. Perhaps she is facing the same dilemma that her aging party leadership encountered during the Buddhist monk-led Saffron Revolution in 2007: not leading, but just belatedly following after the crowds.
The dilemma for China can be seen at two levels: Yunnan and Beijing. A large part of the public outrage over the Myitsone project is directly related to growing resentment of China’s opportunistic and exploitative foreign policy toward Burma. It is not clear how far Yunnan reports back to Beijing and the latter makes its own effort to gather information about the intensity of such resentment and possible dangerous implications. However, it is ironic that China is not sensitive to the deep-seated feelings of the humiliated people of Burma, despite China herself having suffered untold humiliation at the hands of foreign powers in the early 20th century.
Moreover, growing numbers of people in Burma have come to view the Irrawaddy crisis as a national security issue. If Beijing cares only to nurture patron-client relations with a handful of generals and ex-generals in Naypyidaw to secure its security and economic interests without being sensitive to the deprivation and dignity of the people of Burma, the consequences will be dire for both countries.
However, the good news is that there is a great chance for David to beat Goliath. As I argue elsewhere, although the regime is in control of the country's general political direction, opposition groups hold significant sway over specific issues and arenas in terms of power distribution.
The Irrawaddy issue is a case in point. Opposition groups (not necessarily political ones, but broadly inclusive societal groups) have significant leverage to press for issue-specific change. The Irrawaddy crisis offers the broadest issue-linkages because it can be related to human rights, national security, ethnic conflicts, foreign investment and trade, poverty and sustainable development, environmental issues, and the empowerment of civil society, among many other issues.
Stronger issue-linkages will help broaden societal bases of the movement from diverse backgrounds. It can even draw in military officers and the business community because the issue is framed not in terms of claiming political power from incumbents but in terms of a national cause of rescuing Burma from national humiliation.
This is David’s rule of thumb: to choose to fight strength against weakness, and not strength against strength. If the regime refuses to accommodate the people’s demands, it will be targeted as a Goliath, and the Irrawaddy uprising will ensue. If the regime (or a winning faction of the regime in internal rivalries) takes side with the people to accommodate a mediated outcome, the Irrawaddy crisis will serve as a long-awaited step for restoration of national dignity and unity. It will then be China who ends up playing the role of Goliath. In any case, if the underdogs in Burma play David’s playbook in this specific issue of defending the Irrawaddy, the chance is high that they will be able to strike down Goliath with a slingshot and use their powerful sword to slay the giant.
Min Zin is a Burmese journalist living in exile. The opinions expressed in this guest commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Irrawaddy.