MYITKYINA — This is a sacred place for all Burmese people. The confluence of the Mali and N’Mai rivers, known as Myitsone in Burmese, forms here in Burma’s northernmost state of Kachin. The converging rivers form the Irrawaddy river, which flows north to south over more than 2,000 kilometers. It's a vital artery that the Burmese consider the cradle of their civilization.

A little over three kilometers downstream, near the town Myitkyina, China is constructing a colossal dam worth $3.6 billion. It should be completed in a few years, according to a contract signed in 2005 between the military junta that was then in power and China Southern Power Grid, a large state company that specializes in hydroelectric projects. Most of the electricity that will be produced here will not be for Kachin, but for China's neighboring province of Yunnan.

But since the contract was signed, the political situation has changed in Burma. A regime in favor of democratization took office in the spring of 2011. And in September of that year, Burmese president Thein Sein announced, to Beijing's surprize, that the construction of the Myitsone Dam would be "suspended," at least until the end of his term in 2015. He intended to show that he understood the "will of the people" — in other words, the fierce opposition to the project.

The ecological impact of the construction, which was supposed to be — at 14 meters high — the 15th biggest in the world, is considered to be particularly damaging to human habitat and wildlife. More than 11,000 people in 47 villages around the site will have to be relocated before the waters in the dam's reservoir flood the Irrawaddy valley.

A view of the Irrawaddy river — Photo: Colegota.

Environmental experts also underline that this flooding will mean the disappearance of Buddhist temples, churches and cultural sites venerated by ethnic Kachin, a majority of whom are Christians. That's to say nothing of the threat to local biodiversity, among others the Irrawaddy dolphin, a species that is already critically endangered. Finally, the fact that the dam is located on a seismic fault only adds to the arguments against its construction.

Away from home

Some 1,300 people had to leave three villages and were relocated in 2010 to a strange place just a few kilometers from the construction site, a sort of residential area where small one-story houses made of wood and concrete are lined next to each other, surrounded by vegetable patches and small gardens.

"Nobody’s happy here," says the Baptist pastor of Aung Min Thar — the name of this new village — as he shows the gloomy houses through the mist of the midday heat. The forty-something pastpr, Nlam Brang Nu, just finished the Sunday service. "One day, I went to see the project’s deputy head, a Chinese woman called Cheng Yan," he explains. "She told me, 'You must feel better in that modern village. Before that, you used to live in old houses.' I replied that our houses might have been old, but they were made out of bamboo, and so were more solid, more flexible and more adapted to our lives here in Kachin."

The pastor smiles. "I also told her that it wasn’t for her to judge what the parameters of happiness are." Having had to evacuate Tang Hpre, one of the three villages, he says that the compensation offered to families by the Chinese company were ridiculously low. "Two families who owned several houses were given about thirty million kyats ($30,000). But most people only got a hundred thousand kyats ($100)."

Tang Hpre, one of the villages that had to be evacuated. — Photo: Rebecca W.

With the 2015 general election approaching, the anti-dam crowd fears that the suspension might end. In March, dozens of protesters started a long march from the North to Yangon, Burma's financial capital, to remind the whole country that there was a real threat the construction work would begin again. The same month, a referendum organized by a local association to defend the villagers of Aung Min Thar showed the clear hostility of the inhabitants towards the project. Of 1,160 villagers, 1,086 voted against the dam.

President Thein Sein traveled to Beijing June 17 for bilateral talks with his counterpart Xi Jinping. There has been no news of what transpired during the meeting between the Chinese leader and the president of Burma, a country that was for a long time almost exclusively dependent on its powerful neighbor’s economic and military goodwill. 

The decision to halt construction of Myitsone Dam represented a rebalancing of Burma's diplomacy. But the country cannot afford a contentious relationship with Beijing. One way or another, either by allowing the construction to resume or by offering compensation to China, Burma will without a doubt pay for its audacity.