Jun 9th 2011 | MYITKYINA, KACHIN STATE |
WAIST-DEEP in the muddy water, hundreds of people swirl their pans,
scouring the black sediment for the sparkle of gold dust. They have come
from all over Myanmar to Kachin state, where the Nï¿½Mai and Mali rivers
merge to form the mighty Irrawaddy, knowing that a good day may yield
$1,000-worth of goldï¿½and that time for gold-panning is running out.
Across the river, the corrugated-iron roofs of a prefabricated barracks
glint in the midday sun. They house hundreds of Chinese labourers
working on the Myitsone hydropower project. This, according to Myanmarï¿½s
government, will be the sixth highest dam in the world, and generate
6,000MW of electricity a year. On completion in 2019, the dam will flood
the gold-prospecting area and displace more than 10,000 people. All the
electricity will be exported to China. All the revenue will go to
Myanmarï¿½s government. If an environmental and social impact study was
conducted at all, it did not involve consulting the affected villagers.
A local Catholic priest who led prayers against the dam says his
parishioners were moved to a ï¿½modelï¿½ village, into tiny houses on plots
too small for cultivation. The letters of concern he sent to Myanmarï¿½s
leaders went unanswered. He says he will stay in his historic church
ï¿½till the waters rise over the doorstepï¿½.
Those displaced are not the only ones worrying about the project. The
project abuts territory controlled by the Kachin Independence
Organisation (KIO), one of a plethora of ethnic insurgencies that have
battled the central government for decades. Last year several bombs
exploded at the dam site and in May the KIO warned that if the dam were
not stopped it would lead to civil war. The KIOï¿½s armed wing recently
engaged in skirmishes with government forces, despite a notional ceasefire.
The KIO was banned from last yearï¿½s election in Myanmar because it
refused to let its fighters join the governmentï¿½s ï¿½border security
forceï¿½. Its threat came as Myanmarï¿½s newly installed ï¿½civilianï¿½
president, Thein Sein, a former general, embarked on a state visit to China.
China has a big stake in Myanmar. It is the countryï¿½s leading foreign
investor. Myitsone is one of many hydropower, mining and infrastructure
projects there. Chinaï¿½s most ambitious undertaking is a new deep-sea
port for oil tankers. Due for completion in 2013, it will take gas from
Myanmarï¿½s offshore Shwe field and will have the capacity to satisfy 10%
of Chinaï¿½s oil-import needs.
These close ties are not entirely comfortable for either side. Between
1m and 2m Chinese citizens have moved into northern Myanmar. They
dominate the jade-and-gem trade, push up land prices and flaunt their
wealth in Mandalay and Myitkyina, where all the posh cars have Chinese
number plates. Local resentment is growing. Church leaders in Myitkyina
say Chinese people make up more than half the population. Many Burmese
say their northern states are like a Chinese province.
China, for its part, worries about the security of its investments and
people. In the past it has leaned on Myanmarï¿½s leaders to prevent
fighting between the army and the ethnic insurgencies. When conflict
broke out in 2009 with the Kokang, an ethnic-Han-Chinese minority,
37,000 people fled to China, provoking sharp criticism of the Burmese junta.
As its economic interests have grown, China has pressed for more access
to Myanmarï¿½s harbours and territorial waters, to monitor the security of
the new port and pipelines, and to keep an eye out for pirates. But this
is a neuralgic issue for a country with a deep-seated suspicion of its
powerful northern neighbour.
Myanmarï¿½s xenophobic leaders are trying to reduce their dependence on
China by playing it off against India and the West. But India has been
slow in trying to gain a toehold, while America and the European Union
have recently extended sanctions on Myanmar. These include Americaï¿½s
embargo on backing loans from the World Bank, which would impose higher
environmental and other standards on big infrastructure projects such as
So the regime is being drawn into Chinaï¿½s orbit as much from necessity
as choice. That does not make China any more popular. In the words of an
old Burmese monk: ï¿½We are Chinaï¿½s kitchen. They take what they like and
leave us with the rubbish.ï¿½
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