Burmese citizens stop dam construction on Irrawady River, 2007-2011

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly versionPDF versionPDF version
Time Period:  
21 May
30 September
Location and Goals
Location City/State/Province: 
Kachin State
Location Description: 
Confluence of Hka Mali and Hka N'Mai rivers, beginning of the Irrawaddy river.
To "stop the Myitsone Hydropower project in Kachin State" - Burma Rivers Network

The Irrawaddy river, the largest in Burma, begins at the confluence of the Mali Hka and N’Mai Hka rivers in the northern state of Kachin. Villagers in the small towns dotting the banks of these waters make their livelihood farming and fishing in a region internationally recognized as one of the world’s ecological “hot spots.” Although these waters support some of the most diverse and fragile ecosystems in the world and the delta area of the Irrawaddy produces the majority of Burma’s rice crop, they also attract the eye of investors looking to produce hydropower, a growing industry in this part of the world. In 2006, Burma’s military government made an agreement with a China Power Investment, a Chinese state-owned energy investment conglomerate, to begin building seven dams along the Irrawaddy and its source rivers. The largest of these dams would be built at the head of the Irrawaddy and named Myitsone, “confluence.”

This move not only threatened the natural environment, but also put stress on the already tenuous sociopolitical environment of the region where different ethnic groups clashed with the military regime and did not welcome such development in the area. The most prominent ethnic militant group, the Kachin Independence Organization, publicly opposed the dam project and released themselves from liability, should civil war break out as a result of the dams’ construction beginning. Also, nonviolent resistance claimed part of the stage as villagers began taking action, risking arrest, torture, or even death at the hands of the military regime. On May 21, 2007, twelve elders and leaders from numerous villages wrote an open letter to the Burmese Senior General Than Shwe calling for a halt to the project.

Over the next two years awareness spread and signs of resistance increased with graffiti reading, “No dam” and “No Myitsone” appearing on bridges and other public places in Myitkyina, the capital of the Kachin state. Opponents of the dam also posted leaflets in villages throughout Kachin. As the military forced villagers surrounding the confluence to vacate their homes in preparation for the dam construction, churches in the area organized prayer gatherings by the water in a call for the project to be halted. In early October 2009, 300 people from different villages and different faiths came together at the confluence for a public prayer service. Groups kept sending letters to the Burmese military government and the Chinese government, as well as to China Power Investment. The Kachin Public Youth Organization organized two public prayer meetings in October 2009, and also enlisted the help of local pastors to collect signatures of residents. 4,100 Kachin residents signed a petition against the Myitsone dam that the group sent to the Chinese Government.

The dam project proponents remained largely unresponsive to the increasing public action, but the army’s Northern Commander General Soe Win did hold a meeting with over 100 villagers near the Myitsone in October 2009. At the meeting representatives from the Taghnpre Village Housewives Group delivered a statement firmly opposing the dam. This appeal met no response. Kachins in London, Bangkok, New Delhi, Singapore, and Wellington also delivered letters to embassies of the People’s Republic of China but none received a response except the Singapore group. The coalition group, Burma Rivers Network (BRN) emerged as a leader in the Save the Irrawaddy campaign, as did Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG). These groups were able to build international support through thorough online publications and press work. Burma Rivers Network also received support from international organizations, most prominently International Rivers Network based in Berkley, CA.

In March of 2011, Burma’s former Prime Minister General Thein Sein won the presidency and Burma transitioned to having a more civilian-run government. At the same time as the government was transitioning, the campaign to stop the Myitsone dam project was gaining momentum. In August, Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma’s pro-democracy opposition (newly freed from house arrest as a result of the government transition), released a personal statement to the Burmese government calling for democratic representation of the peoples’ will and a reassessment of the project. Two weeks later, on September 2, the president received a petition entitled, “From Those who Wish the Irrawaddy to Flow Forever,” containing 1,600 signatures including those of prominent politicians, artists, journalists, and film directors. Also, political candidates began calling on the Supreme Court to intervene. Near the end of September the National Democratic Force, a political party formed by former members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National Democratic League, released a statement calling for a nationwide referendum on the issue of the Mytisone dam. On September 30, the response came that everyone had been working towards for over four years: President Thein Sein wrote in a letter to parliament that the Mytisone dam project must be halted because the people’s will was against it. That same day, in a meeting of parliament, the Burmese government announced the official cessation of the project, postponing it for the duration of the government’s tenure.

Research Notes
Kuang, Ka. “Burmese President Halts Myitsone Dam Project.” The Irrawaddy. Sep. 30, 2011. Web. Mar. 15, 2012. < http://irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=22172>

Watts, Jonathan. “Aung San Suu Kyi: China's dam project in Burma is dangerous and divisive.” The Guardian. Aug. 12, 2011. Web. Mar. 15, 2012. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/aug/12/suukyi-china-dam-irrawaddy-conflict>

“China’s assessment calls for Burma’s Myitsone Dam to be scrapped” Burma Rivers Network. Jul. 14, 2011. Web. Mar. 15, 2012. <http://www.burmariversnetwork.org/actions/press-releases/23-press-releases/621-chinas-assessment-calls-for-burmas-myitsone-dam-to-be-scrapped.html>

“The Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy River: A Briefing” International Rivers. Sep. 28, 2011. Web. Mar. 15, 2012. <http://www.internationalrivers.org/node/6876>

Mang, Grace. “Lessons from Myitsone Dam in Burma.” International Rivers. Sep. 30, 2011. Web. Mar. 15, 2012. <http://www.internationalrivers.org/en/node/6886>

“China ignores Kachin people’s appeal to halt dam project.” Kachin News Group. Re-published by Burma Rivers Network. Mar. 1, 2010. Web. Mar. 15, 2012. <http://www.burmariversnetwork.org/news/news-archives/332-china-ignores-kachin-peoples-appeal-to-halt-dam-project.html>

Han Thar San, Salai. “Junta forcibly acquires relocation consent.” Mizzima. Mar. 4, 2010. Web. Mar. 15, 2012. <http://www.mizzima.com/news/inside-burma/3610-junta-forcibly-acquires-relocation-consent-for-myitsone-dam.html>

“Kachins plea to China over the Myitsone Dam.” Democratic Voice of Burma. Re-Published by Burma Rivers Network. Mar. 2, 2010. Web. Mar. 15, 2012. <http://www.burmariversnetwork.org/news/news-archives/330-kachins-plea-to-china-over-the-myitsone-dam.html>

“NDF Calls for National Referendum on Myitsone Dam.” The Irrawaddy. Re-Published by Burma Rivers Network. Sep. 28, 2011. Web. Mar. 15, 2012. <http://www.burmariversnetwork.org/news/news-archives/689-ndf-calls-for-national-referendum-on-myitsone-dam.html>

Zom Hseng, Sai. “Govt. Bans Media Reports on Myitsone Dam Protests.” The Irrawaddy. Sep. 26, 2011. Web. Mar. 15, 2012. <http://irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=22139>

“Save The Irrawaddy' Campaign Gains Momentum.” The Irrawaddy. Re-Published by Burma Rivers Network. Sep. 2, 2011. Web. Mar. 15, 2012. < http://www.burmariversnetwork.org/news/news-archives/664-save-the-irrawaddy-campaign-gains-momentum.html>

“Kachin Churches united in rejection of Irrawaddy Myitsone dam.” Burma Rivers Network. Feb. 10, 2011. Web. Mar. 15, 2012. <http://www.burmariversnetwork.org/news/news-archives/518-kachin-churches-united-in-rejection-of-irrawaddy-myitsone-dam.html>

“Burmese villagers forced to move for a Chinese dam.” France 24. Dec. 2, 2010. Web. Mar 15, 2012. <http://observers.france24.com/content/20100212-burmese-villagers-forced-move-chinese-dam-irrawaddy-myitsone>

“Kachin Catholics gather and pray for a halt to the Irrawaddy Dam project” Burma Rivers Network. Feb. 10, 2010. Web. Mar. 15, 2012. <http://www.burmariversnetwork.org/news/news-archives/314-kachin-catholics-gather-and-pray-for-a-halt-to-the-irrawaddy-dam-project.html>

“Irrawaddy Dams.” Kachin Development Networking Group. Web. Mar. 15, 2012. <http://www.kdng.org/dams/irrawaddy-dams.html>

“Resisting the flood: Communities taking a stand against the imminent construction of Irrawaddy dams.” Kachin Development Networking Group. Oct. 2009. Web. Mar. 15, 2012. <http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CCUQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fuscampaignforburma.org%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2F2011%2F08%2FResisting_the_Flood.pdf&ei=n9tGT_zoG6T50gHq1YyODg&usg=AFQjCNGlZJCaQJUOsyczf83jAIICU30_bg>

Fuller, Thomas. “Myanmar Backs Down, Suspending Dam Project.” The New York Times. Sep. 30, 2011. Web. Mar. 15, 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/01/world/asia/myanmar-suspends-construction-of-controversial-dam.html>

Watts, Jonathan. “Victory for Burma reformers over dam project.” The Guardian. Sep. 30, 2011. Web. Mar. 15, 2012. < http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/sep/30/victory-burma-reformers-dam-project>

“US embassy cables: how Rangoon office helped opponents of Myitsone dam.” The Guardian. Sep. 30, 2011. Web. Mar. 15, 2012. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/sep/30/us-embassy-cables-myitsone-dam-document>

“Aung San Suu Kyi meets Burma's president Thein Sein.” The Guardian. Aug. 19, 2011. Web. Mar. 15, 2012. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/aug/19/aung-san-suu-kyi-meeting>

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Leah Grady Sayvetz, 15/03/2012