YANGON — The first social responsibility report has been published by the Chinese backer of the Myitsone dam project in north Burma, detailing tens of millions of dollars in investment to benefit the local people. But Burmese activists and opposition lawmakers have slammed the report, calling it a piece of propaganda aimed at garnering support for an unpopular project that has left thousands of people displaced and polluted a vital waterway.
The Upstream Ayeyawady Confluence Basin Hydropower Co. (ACHC), part of the state-owned Chinese Power Investment Corp., released its first social responsibility report on Thursday for the Myitsone and six other hydropower dam projects along the Irrawaddy River. The largest of these dams, Myitsone, was suspended in 2011 by President Thein Sein following opposition from the Burmese public, while construction of the others has continued.
The social responsibility report, which covers 2010-2012, says ACHC invested US$10 million to conduct an environment impact assessment, $6.68 million for environment protection, $25 million to resettle displaced local residents, $20 million to construct roads and bridges, $564,000 on rice donations, and $100 to assist agricultural production.
But the company has been accused of publishing the report just for show, in a bid to restart Myitsone after 2015, the end of Thein Sein’s term.
“We, the Kachin people, are not enjoying the benefits of it,” Khon Ja, coordinator of the Kachin Peace Network, said of the project. “Everything China did was for their own good name. They are trying to improve their reputation, to win the support of the people.”
Over the past two years, more than 400 households comprising over 2,500 people have been displaced by the hydropower projects. If construction on the Myitsone dam continues, activists say another 4,000 households in 47 villages will be displaced.
CPI has constructed houses in two main resettlement villages. The homes appear sturdy on the outside, but residents say the builders opted for poor quality wood. They also say the villages experienced heavy flooding during the raining season this year.
CPI’s Yunnan subsidiary owns 80 percent of the shares in ACHC, while Burma’s Ministry of Electric Power owns 15 percent and Burmese conglomerate Asia World Co. owns 5 percent.
ACHC has invested about $25 billion on the seven hydropower projects, with construction expected to last 15 years, followed by a 50-year operating period, says Guo Gengliang, vice president and board director of the company. According to the contract, the Burma government has offered land but will not offer direct capital investment for construction.
“The Myanmar [Burma] government will gain about $54 billion in income by means of tax payment, free power and free shares, accounting for 60 percent of the total revenue of the Ayeyawady [Irrawaddy] projects,” Guo Gengliang told The Irrawaddy. He added that after the concession period, hydropower assets totaling about $25 billion would be transferred to the Burma government, free of charge, for continuous operation.
In addition to courting the Burma government, CPI has tried to win favor with Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Over the past year members of the NLD have visited China and reportedly learned more about the hydropower projects.
But NLD members of Parliament have also criticized the social responsibility report, saying the Chinese company should have released more information earlier. “They want the recommendation of the people, and they want to restart Myitsone again,” Win Htein, an NLD lawmaker representing Meikhtila Township, Mandalay Division, told The Irrawaddy.
Win Myo Thu, an activist from Economically Progressive Ecosystem Development (EcoDev) and Advancing Life and Regenerating Motherland (Alarm) Group who has long campaigned against the hydropower projects, said he believed the timing of the report was deliberate.
“China thinks people will like them for helping with the SEA Games, so it seems like a good opportunity to win support, since the China government has said they cannot continue [with Myitsone] without the approval of the [Burmese] public,” he said.
“If they continue the project, there may be conflict between the Chinese and Myanmar, in a high-risk political arena.”
The Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games), regional sporting event, closed in Burma on Sunday. Burma was hosting the event for the first time in over four decades. Beijing reportedly offered Burma nearly US$33 million in technical assistance for the Games, including for the opening and closing ceremonies, while accepting Burmese athletes for training on Chinese soil.
Myitsone could also be a consideration as the Burma government attempts to negotiate a peace deal with ethnic armed groups in Kachin State, where the hydropower projects are located. “They are urgently trying to do peace talks now, and China releases this report. They want to end fighting with the KIA, because construction for Myitsone will require transportation through KIA areas,” said Khon Ja, from the Kachin Peace Network, referring to the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
Of the impact on local residents, she added that while the resettlement villages had access to electricity, most of the power would support Myitsone. “We just get a small amount,” she said. “There are six ongoing projects along the Ayeyawady [Irrawaddy] basin, and most of them are needed to supply electricity to Myitsone.”
Ar Htone, a resident from Aung Myin Thar village, where families have been resettled, said children in the village now needed to take a boat across the river to attend high school. The resettlement, she said, has not benefited the people, despite CPI’s investment.
“The report is just to restart Myitsone in 2015. We don’t want Myitsone to continue because we, the local people, are suffering a lot and losing out in our agricultural work,” she said.
Others say the hydropower dams have polluted the river. Cho, a resident in Myitkyina Township, Kachin State, said officials were “trading the country’s natural resources.”
“China and local authorities are playing chess to make it seem like their hydropower projects have been well received by the public. The report is just propaganda,” he told The Irrawaddy.
In the social responsibility report, Kyee Soe, director-general of Burma’s Department of Hydropower Planning, under the Ministry of Electric Power, offers praise for ACHC. “It is bound to win understanding and support from the people of Myanmar. The further advancement of the Ayeyawady Projects will boost the economic development of Myanmar,” he wrote
Jin Honggen, economic and commercial counselor of the Chinese Embassy in Burma, also expressed a desire to restart the construction at Myitsone.
“We hope the project could be restarted in the future, and ACHC could continue to work hard in such aspects as environmental protection, talent training and job creation, realize harmonious development among the nature, environment and society, and make new contributions to the local development,” he wrote in the report.