The Thirsty Dragon: Behind Myanmar’s Suspended Dam (2)

Courtesy of China Dialogue, further reporting on the background to Myanmar’s recent decision to shelve a China-funded hydropower plant on the Irrawaddy River.  As the article notes:

Everything I heard in Myanmar pointed to a failure to consult as the key issue in the furore surrounding the Myitsone dam. As Brother Kunsang of the Kachin Baptist Convention said, “If the junta and Chinese companies come along and want to make money from it without even consulting us, of course I’ll object.”

Myitsone is sacred, but does that mean nobody is allowed to build there? Even the Kachin aren’t united on this point. A new Buddhist pagoda, a church and some basic tourist facilities already stand at the confluence of the two rivers. But if Myanmar’s government was to seal off Myitsone, remove local residents and hand the area over to an official tourism company – which in turn contracted operations out to a foreign firm – then, just as with the dam, there would be widespread opposition.

A friend told me that, in the past, Myitsone wasn’t as well known as it is today, and the image of the two rivers flowing around the mountain was less common a sight. Its current popularity is in part a reaction to the behaviour of the military government and the Chinese firms. Myitsone is not just the birthplace of the Kachin, to an extent it has become a symbol of Kachin resistance and dignity.

The Kachin people see a military government known for despotism and corruption taking their land, clearing them from their homes with only minimal compensation and then handing that land over to a foreign dam company, who will operate the site for 50 years and export 90% of the electricity generated. The company will of course make significant contributions to the government, but what does that have to do with the Kachin people? Their experience of the government is of massacre and pillage, not the provision of welfare.

The Myitsone is not as important to the ethnic Burmese as it is to the Kachin. But as the source of the Irrawaddy River, it still holds certain symbolic value. The Kachin see the Myanmar government as the “invader”, and the recent reforms show the Burmese were far from enamoured with the junta themselves. The benefits of the deal for the government are not automatically good news for the people. And so the project is unpopular with both Kachin and Burmese.

The Chinese company says the project is a Sino-Burmese partnership, and that the Burmese partner has to be the government – it could not work with the opposition or “ethnic militias”. It points out that the military government agreed to let China operate the dam for 50 years, in return for which China would provide appropriate recompense, and that this is a normal and fair deal between two nations which benefits both parties. As for how the government recompenses the locals, that is an “internal affair”.

But the situation in Kachin state, which would host the dam, is unusual. The Chinese government has, over many decades, exerted a huge influence on northern Myanmar.

Myanmar is a multi-ethnic state, and the Mon, Shan and Burmese peoples have all at one time or another presided over strong kingdoms within its present-day territory.  But they have never controlled the whole of northern Burma, and in particular the Kachin areas. When China and Myanmar started to form an international relationship in the modern sense, Myanmar was a British colony. But China and pro-Chinese indigenous peoples opposed British rule, and there was no fixed border.

In 1914, the British proposed the McMahon Line as the boundary between China and their two colonies, Myanmar and India. But the Chinese – still claiming rights to land it had formerly possessed, stretching as far as Myitsone – rejected the proposal. However, in 1960, China and Myanmar formally recognised the Burmese section of the line.

The Japanese invasion of China, and later Myanmar, brought further changes. Cut off from the sea, China relied heavily on land routes through Myanmar and was forced by the British (not yet at war with Japan) to accept the “1914 Line”, demarcating the north of the Shan State. Later, as the United States and Britain joined the war and Japan invaded Myanmar, Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalist Chinese forces entered the country, commanded by US general Joseph Stilwell. It was a period of rapid change for Myanmar. For a while, Chinese forces were in actual control of the bulk of disputed territory and, after the war, China retained significant influence.

While the Kachin army fought bravely against Japan, the Burmese nationalists misread the situation and allied with Japan, hoping to gain independence from Britain. This brought them into conflict with China, Britain, the Kachin and other ethnic groups of northern Myanmar. That history was not easily forgotten and the ethnic Burmese later struggled to inherit British power – power that was, in any case, much reduced after the war.

This led the Burmese nationalist politicians to advocate one of two strategies: one, use a loose federal system to devolve power to ethnic minorities in exchange for their support for the federal state. Or two, play the “Chinese card” and use Chinese support to control northern Myanmar.

Revolutionary general Aung San himself supported the federal approach and, in 1947, prior to independence, signed the Panglong Agreement with a number of ethnic groups. This agreement allowed for a large degree of self-governance and the option to withdraw from the federation after a decade. That agreement forms the legal basis for demands for self-governance today. Tragically, Aung San was assassinated shortly after that agreement was signed and it was never implemented, to the fury of the ethnic minorities.

Aung San’s successors, including U Nu, the country’s first prime minister, turned to China, hoping to use the strength of the new Chinese Communist regime to eliminate the remnants of the Chinese nationalists in northern Myanmar. Myanmar became the first non-communist state to recognise the People’s Republic of China and China, at the time in desperate need of recognition, was grateful. In the border negotiations of the late 1950s and early 1960s China basically accepted Burmese sovereignty over the majority of disputed territory, sticking to the McMahon and 1941 lines. Only Pianma and Banhong – locations remembered in China for acts of anti-British resistance – were kept on China’s side of the map.

So the border disputes were resolved. And, if both countries had stayed out of each other’s business, that might have been an end to it. But in the 1960s China, having just put an end to the campaign of cross-border harassment by the remnants of the nationalist army hiding in Myanmar, provided the Burmese Communists with manpower and weapons for their revolution. The Communist “People’s Army” was quickly defeated, however, and fled to the Chinese border. At the time, these were Myanmar’s largest anti-government forces, and they are the predecessors of several of today’s militias.

Conflict between the battle-hardened ethnic generals in the north and the Burmese communist chiefs intensified. The international climate changed: in particular, the start of China’s reform period led to a break with the Burmese communists and the restoration of relations with the Burmese government. The communists weakened and, by 1989, had disbanded. But neither China nor the Burmese government dealt with the situation well. The communists evolved into militias, which have never had good relations with the federal government.

The strongest of the ethnic militias in Kachin State, the Kachin Independence Army, is also most closely connected with the Mytisone problem. The KIA; its political wing the Kachin Independence Organisation; and the Kachin Independence Council (KIC) which governs the region, were not formed from the remnants of the communists – they have always flown a Kachin nationalist flag.

In Chinese eyes, the Kachin appear the most westernised of north Myanmar’s ethnic groups: they are mostly Christian, use a Latin script created by western missionaries and are more likely to speak English than other ethnic groups. And so KIO opposition to the dam was blamed by many Chinese on “western anti-Chinese interference”. This is a grave misunderstanding.

The political figures I spoke to in Kachin state were all members of factions close to the government, or from a communist background. Given the ongoing conflict, I was unable to speak directly to anyone in the KIO. But even these non-KIO members poured scorn on the idea that the KIO is in any way “western”.

They said that many of the founding members of the KIO were actually Marxists and closer to China than the west. But when they founded the Kachin Communist Party and looked to China for support, they were told that, as a matter of “organisational principle”, a nation could only have one Communist Party. If they wanted support, they would have to merge with the Burmese Communist Party. But the Kachin were unwilling to sign up with the Burmese. And, with China opposing the foundation of a Kachin Communist Party, they had to change their name. The Kachin Independence Organisation was born.

Back then, the Burmese Communist Party was proclaiming – at least outside of the party – that it would implement ethnic autonomy after victory. And so the KIO fell into line and obtained Chinese support and military aid indirectly, through the communists. The areas controlled by the KIA in Kachin state and the north of Shan state run alongside the Chinese border, and the KIO has made Laiza, an important border town subject to strong Chinese influence, its headquarters. It would be more accurate to say that the KIO has a Chinese background than a western one.

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