MAI JA YANG, Burma — Last Saturday March 17, five truckloads of Burma army soldiers arrived in Kachin state's Tang Hpre (also Tanghpre) village to enforce an eviction order against displaced residents who had sought to reclaim their homes following the official suspension of the controversial Myitsone dam.
Over the past few months, about one hundred of Tang Hpre's original population of 1,000, returned home in clear defiance of official government policy forbidding them from doing so.
The villagers, who are mostly farmers, were forcibly relocated to Aung Min Thar in 2009 and 2010 to make way for the multibillion dollar mega project which was supposed to be built at the confluence of the Mali Hka and N’Mai Hka rivers, a place sacred to many Kachin.
Although President Thein Sein announced on September 30 that construction of the Myitsone dam would be suspended during his term in office, none of the more than 2,000 residents of the five villages that were forcibly relocated have received permission to return.
The arrival of the army to carry out evictions at Tang Hpre was not unexpected. On March 6 during a meeting with local officials, villagers who had returned to Tang Hpre were told they had until March 17 to dismantle their homes.
In a press release sent out earlier this week, the Kachin Development Networking Group a group of activists at the forefront of the anti dam campaign denounced to the move to evict the villagers. “Villagers at the Myitsone are at the frontline of resistance to the Irrawaddy dams. This new assault on them is an assault on everyone relying on the river” said Tsa Ji, KDNG spokesperson.
According to KDNG the government already demolished most of the Tang Hpre's public buildings including schools. It appears that the recently arrived soldiers in addition to carrying out evictions will destroy any remaining homes in the village. Three other villages that were forcibly relocated were also completely destroyed following the previous round of evictions, KDNG reported.
Push to evict comes one week after Chinese firm calls for project to continue
The army's push to enforce continued evictions at Tang Hpre comes one week after the president of the China Power Investment, the state-owned firm behind the project, publicly called for the project to resume. "Myanmar is our friendly neighbor we hope to restart the project as quickly as possible," Lu Qizhou was quoted in Chinese state media.
Lu's comments were made on March 10 during a news briefing held on the sidelines of the Chinese government’s plenary meetings. Lu, who is also member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference National Committee (CPPCNC), was joined at the press conference by a fellow CPPCNC member, the former chief of the National Energy Administration, who also spoke out in favor of the resumption of the project.
The planned 152-meter high Myitsone dam was to be the first in a series of seven on the upper Irrawaddy that according to the dam’s opponents would flood an area larger than Singapore and displace more than 15,000. The project would also dramatically affect the lives of millions of people who live downstream, including in the Irrawaddy delta, home to two thirds of Burma’s rice production.
Despite the fact that the Myitsone has been officially suspended China Power Investment Corporation (CPI) employees remain at the dam site. The firm is also continuing with its plans to build the other six dams on the upper Irrawaddy. CPI's local Burmese partner Asia World, is a conglomerate owned and operated by Loh Hsing Han and his son Steven Law, both have been targeted by sanctions because U.S. authorities say they are heavily involved in the laundering of funds form Burma's lucrative narcotics trade.
Financial Times blames Kachin NGO's for Myitsone trouble
While Thein Sein's announcement last September that he was suspending the Myitsone project was hailed by observers and media from around the globe, scant attention has since been paid to the fate of those 2,000 people already displaced by the project. Sadly, one of the few recent attempts to analyze the situation by Western journalists leaves much to me to be desired.
Despite mounting evidence that the villagers displaced by the Myitsone project are facing serious human rights abuses at the hands of local authorities, a blog posting co-authored by Gwen Robinson and Leslie Hook from the influential Financial Times newspaper suggests that the local people's continued mistrust of CPI is the result of local NGOs.
The March 13 blog posting did in fact contain some useful information quoting an unnamed Kachin NGO worker who described the hostility and mistrust the local residents still have, “Chinese have been gold-panning in the rivers of Kachin state for years. Now, since the Myitsone controversy and displacement of local people, the Chinese are hated more than ever here. Trucks heavily laden with sand and earth go from the area to China. So of course people conclude, ‘they’re now stealing our gold’. The truth could be either that the Chinese are afraid to wash the sand in Kachin state – angry villagers could kill them – so they truck it out to wash it in China.”
The NGO worker also suggested another possibility adding that the “sand and earth from Myitsone are trucked to China for use in construction there. But people prefer to believe China’s motive is ‘golden sand’.”
Rather than purse this issue further the blog authors conclude its “It’s quite a stretch from dam-building to gold-panning. No wonder, Chinese-state companies find NGOs difficult.”
Contrary to the FT author's musing this isn't a stretch at all, following Thein Sein's official suspension large scale gold production replaced dam building at the Myitsone site.
Large-sale gold mining replaces village life in Myitsone area
Instead of allowing displaced villagers to return to their homes authorities have turned much of the Myitsone area into a toxic large-scale gold project, according to researchers with the KDNG.
Only staff from CPI, Asia World, Burma’s state-owned Mining Enterprise No. 2 and its partner on the Myistone gold project Hka Ka Bo Mining are officially allowed to enter the Myitsone area. Signs have been erected throughout the area indicating that trespassers will be arrested.
Further adding to the level of mistrust the local population has of the government is that fact Hka Ka Bo Mining is owned by Rawang Jung, speaker of the Kachin State legislature and a member of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party.
While toxic-mining practices have been used at the Myitsone area for a number of years, video recently obtained by KDNG shows that since the dam project's suspension in September a large portion of the once productive farm land adjacent to the confluence of the Mali Hka and N’Mai Hka rivers has been turned into a toxic waste land, scarred by large mining pits containing cyanide and mercury pools.
The environmental impact on the Irrawaddy River is expected to be severe, KDNG has also received video showing a toxic soup cyanide and mercury-laced fluid flowing into the river from the mine site.