Monday, July 24, 2017

Tough decisions for NLD as Myitsone suspension deadline looms

For the opposition, the stakes couldn’t be higher. On the one hand there are the livelihoods and expectations of thousands, while on the other a multi-billion-dollar contract and relations with the world’s next superpower.

Daw Laikh Aung Khun holds her grandson inside her home in Tang Hpre village. Residents of Tang Hpre were relocated to the model village of Aung Min Tha, but many have since returned to their former homes. Photo: Wa Lone / The Myanmar TimesDaw Laikh Aung Khun holds her grandson inside her home in Tang Hpre village. Residents of Tang Hpre were relocated to the model village of Aung Min Tha, but many have since returned to their former homes. Photo: Wa Lone / The Myanmar Times

For both sides the pendulum hinges on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and whether she will sacrifice a site of great environmental and cultural significance, or choose instead to risk alienating China.

Either way, she doesn’t have much time. When her National League for Democracy takes up the lead of the government next year, the temporary suspension of the Myitsone dam – located near the confluence of the Maikha and Malikha rivers just north of Myitkyina – will be up for renegotiation.

Political analyst Yun Sun from the US-based Stimson Center gives the party a six-to-12-month window before China will demand a yes-or-no response.

Working in China’s favour is the opposition leader’s lack of a decisive line on the issue. During her election campaign in Kachin State, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi hedged on questions about the project, which President U Thein Sein suspended for the length of his term in office in September 2011. “It would be irresponsible to make promises without knowing the details of the contract,” she said, adding that she would “do what [she] can”.

Axing the project would surely earn the Nobel laureate a groundswell of popular support, while a refusal to do so could elicit cries of hypocrisy given that she personally penned appeals to protect the vital artery. But as Graeme Smith, a research fellow at the Australian National University, has noted, “the letters were penned a while ago”.

In Kachin State, many believe the termination of the behemoth project is already a foregone conclusion.

At Aung Min Tha, one of the relocation sites hosting more than 2000 families uprooted for the project, residents anxiously await the transition. They are convinced that the NLD will deliver a final blow to the hydropower deal and allow them to return to their former homes.

The families were evicted from their riverfront properties five years ago. China Power Investment (CPI), the builder of the US$3.6 billion hydropower dam project, trucked them beyond the anticipated flood line into a newly erected model village with rows of identical stilt houses complete with white crosses tacked on front. By the developer’s estimates, around 11,800 families would need to be relocated to make way for the dam’s reservoir, which will see 766 square kilometres (almost 190,000 acres) inundated.

While the Chinese state-backed builder has gone to pains to paint the trade-off as preferential – the new houses have running water and electricity, schools were built, scholarships provided, a clinic set up – Aung Min Tha retains the impression of a ghost town, where residents act as if they are serving time in prison.

Beyond the cookie-cutter facades, the town is little more than a simulacrum. There are no markets, no shops, no jobs and no commerce.

“It looks nice from the outside, but they didn’t build these houses well,” said Ma Luu Ja, a 30-year-old mother of four. “In rainy season there are leaks, and the windows are broken. I don’t feel like it’s a very safe house.”

The 3-inch gap between her empty window frames and the wall create a draught. Her ceiling has holes, the concrete foundation is cracked, and the doors refuse to close properly. But far worse than the decrepit houses, is that she and her neighbours, formerly subsistence farmers, have no way to earn an income.

“Where we lived before we could grow our own food. We had mangoes, oranges, tea and vegetables, like carrots and tomatoes,” said Ma Luu Ja. Forced from her 2-acre plot in the middle of the anticipated flood zone, she was given a small, infertile square in exchange. Her neighbour said the soil is “too thin and rocky” for farming, with five years of failed crop experiments to prove it. The hill abutting the village has even earned a nickname, “Grow-Nothing Mountain”.

“Our previous life was better, easier,” said Ko Brang Mai, 35. “Here we have electricity and running water and our children can go to school, but we have no way to get money to support our families. We can’t keep living here.”

He said he was travelling at the time his family was forcibly relocated. When he returned he was given just $40 in exchange for the plot of land that had formerly sustained them.

Many of the villagers have taken up odd jobs in nearby goldmines. But some have refused to give up their hillside cultivation, even though it’s now 9 kilometres (5.6 miles) down a windy, landslide-prone road bearing “restricted access” signs.

“What choice do we have for our families to eat?” said Daw Luu, 50. “Here we can grow just two or three plants. That’s hardly enough.”

Representatives from CPI did not return repeated requests for comment, but a press officer from CPI’s parent company told The Myanmar Times in June that the developers had not gotten a fair chance to pitch the benefits of the project before it was shot down. They said the terms of the original contract, agreed with the former military government, prohibited them from explaining the benefits to locals.

The relocated villagers said they have heard enough promises from the company, however.

“The developers told us after the dam was constructed that our lives would be better, that this would become a city and we would have 24-hour electricity and many people would come here,” Daw Luu said. “But no one believes them. How could we when they have left us without even enough food?”

Not a single one of the Aung Min Tha villagers said they would stay if the dam is cancelled. And after the election, the expectation shifted, and cancellation became not an “if” but a “when”.

“If this is a democracy then the government must listen first to the needs of the people,” said U Sam Ra Zau Naw, 74. “Perhaps the government could get benefits from this project, but certainly the Kachin people would not.”

Under the terms of the original contract, about 90 percent of the power generated from the hydropower dam was to be pumped back to China.

Some of the relocated families have not bothered waiting for the government transition, but have slowly, quietly returned to houses grown wild with five years of neglect. Their return was pre-empted by many signs of an impending cancellation. For years, the Chinese dam workers’ houses were abandoned, leaving behind an empty, rusting compound. Restricted access signs have disappeared within the last month or so, and rations formerly provided by developers CPI and Asia World have all but dried up.

At a roadside teashop in Tang Hpre, one of the evicted villages, the owner said authorities have stopped making even half-hearted attempts to warn the residents away.

CPI appears to have fought, and lost, a last-ditch push for the dam in May. Local administrators were dispatched to get evicted villagers to sign contracts relinquishing any control over the vacated properties. The developer had even hired British public relations firm Bell Pottinger to help promote the 458-foot-tall (140-metres), 6000-megawatt dam as purveyor of more good than harm. But the PR contract lapsed in July – Bell Pottinger did not return requests for comment about whether the arrangement was renewed in any capacity – and the villagers refused to ink any contracts.

According to the Kachin Baptist Convention daycare director in Tang Hpre, 50 to 60 families have already started re-inhabiting their homes, with most going back and forth between Aung Myin Tha and the old properties. Signs of inhabitance are clear, but subtle: Weeds have been ripped out to make way for vegetable patches, dogs and well-fed pigs linger in fenced-off yards, and laundry lines are tucked just out of sight.

Daw Laikh Aung Khun, 40, said she never stopped returning to her family home, the last house along a grassy lane behind the church where she, her children, and her grandson were all born. She says she comes very often, but never stays “too long” and the police do not bother her.

“Nobody can really live in Aung Myin Tha,” she said. “People will always come back home.”

According to political analysts, the NLD doesn’t have to wreck its ties with China to backpedal on the Myitsone dam. Sino-Myanmar relations, though strained, have already moved past the “Myitsone event”, as it was dubbed by Lu Guangsheng, a Chinese academic and professor at Yunnan University. President U Thein Sein’s decision to postpone the project may have been perceived as a “slap” to Beijing, but China has too many other interests at stake to castigate its resource-rich neighbour in retaliation for one axed project.

“For Myanmar citizens, Myitsone is many things: national identity, environment, autonomy, peace, and livelihood. It is uncompromisable,” said U Soe Myint Aung, a political analyst and founder of the Tagaung Institute of Political Science.

“While the cancellation may result in short-term repercussions on the bilateral relations, Myanmar and China will have many other issues to cooperate and ways to patch up relations,” he said.

Getting out of the contract for the Myitsone, one of seven planned cascade dams with a combined 20,000-megawatt capacity, would be an expensive endeavour. Under a bilateral agreement from 2002, Myanmar would have to reimburse the state-owned electricity giant for any investments already disbursed.

“Unless there is a significant political agreement on the top level, meaning the Chinese government [okays] it, Myanmar cannot potentially get out of the deal without financial consequences,” said Ms Yun from the Stimson Center. “However, the Chinese government will not offer such good will for free and there will be other strategic demands.”

But perhaps further evidencing groundwork laid to finally end the dam, CPI has already conducted an evaluation of its expenses for the project, which were totalled in October at around $800 million. How the NLD could refund the expenditure and placate its energy-hungry neighbour remains unclear. A party spokesperson would not even confirm if Daw Aung San Suu Kyi discussed a cancellation strategy during her visit to China in June when she met with President Xi Jinping, or in subsequent meetings with the ambassador to Myanmar.

In the valley along the Myitsone, the choice to build or to cancel the dam is perceived narrowly – the government can protect the people and the main waterway, or exploit them.

“Every political party that came here promised they would support the people and do good,” said Daw Luu. “The people have chosen the government and now must wait and see if the promises are true.”