To the Friends of the Mekong
and VN 2020 Mekong Group
“The destruction of the ecology, regardless of time and space,
is another form of violence and violation of human rights”
A Glimpse of Myanmar
Myanmar has been known as “Shwe Pyidaw” – the “El Dorado” of Asia, a land
richly endowed with natural resources such as valuable wood, precious stones,
oil, and the Irrawaddy Basin, Asia’s most fertile land. This Basin, considered
the “rice bowl” of this nation covers an area of 255,000 km2. Furthermore, the
Burmese can also find a vast, bountiful fishing ground in the Andaman Gulf.
Unfortunately, such a beautiful country graced with thousands of glistening
golden pagodas is also a land of poverty where three quarter (3/4) of the population
still suffers from illiteracy and food shortage. The situation is worse than
when this nation lived under British rule. Its population of 54 million resides
in an area of 676,552km2 - twice the size of Vietnam or larger than France and
Great Britain combined. To the west and northwest, Myanmar shares common borders
with India and Bangladesh, to the north and north east it abuts China and Laos
while to the south and southeast it neighbors Thailand. Two main rivers flow
through the land along a north-south axis and form valleys and plains covered
with a thick layer of alluvium. The Irrawaddy, the longest of the two, originates
from the Tibetan High Plateau and meanders through the hills and mountains of
the Kachin region in northeastern Myanmar. It then continues southward on a
2,000 mile long journey before discharging into the Indian Ocean through various
The Irriwaddy is the lifeline of Myanmar and since British colonial times
it has been used as this nation’s main waterway. Rudyard Kipling, the first
English writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, authored the book,
“The Road to Mandalay”. He became well known as a writer of the colonial era
and the verse “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall
meet!” from his “The Ballad of East and West” (1892) is still being quoted to
the present day.
In Burmese mythology, Mandalay Hill is known as the land of the Buddha. It
was said that during a visit to this place, the Buddha and his disciple Ananda
had foretold that come the year of 2400 of the Buddhist calendar Mandalay will
be transformed into a flourishing Buddhist center of learning. Consequently,
in 1857, the Burmese king Mindon moved his palaces to the vicinity of Mandalay
Hill, on an elbow of the Irrawaddy. Soon afterwards, impressive structures designed
for educational purposes were constructed with delicately carved precious woods.
Overnight, Mandalay Hill turned into a de facto hub of Buddhist culture. In
the following years, it came under British control then fell in ruins during
the Second World War. Dilapidated Mandalay Hill of today is only a shadow of
its former self.
Myanmar once ranked as one of the most profitable colonies of the British
Empire. Kyaw Nyein, a former deputy prime minister of the Union of Burma described
Myanmar under British colonial rule in the following way: “The country presented
the picture of a social pyramid which had the millions of the poor, ignorant,
exploited Burmese as its base, and a few outsiders – British, Indian, and Chinese
– as its apex.”
Despite the fact that the British had left, the situation stayed unchanged
for the next fifty years. The same social pyramid persists with tens of millions
of destitute, illiterate, and exploited Burmese still at its base. The only
difference is that they are now being exploited more thoroughly by their own
fellow countrymen: the clique of Burmese generals.
In 1989, the military leaders changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar
with a system of government described as “Socialist, Republic of the Union of
Burma”. Any mail sent from overseas to this country bearing the old name “Burma”
was returned to the senders with the inscription “Burma, country unknown” stamped
Sunset on the Irrawaddy [2007 – 2011]
According to the government-owned newspaper “The New Light of Myanmar”, in
May of 2007 China and the Burmese military junta jointly approved a deal between
China Power Investment Co. (CPI) and the Department of Electricity of Myanmar
to construct seven large hydroelectric dams on the Irrawaddy with a combined
output of 13,360 MW.
Map of Dams in Burma
[Source: Burma Rivers Network]
Since the close of 2007, even though the Environmental Impact Assessments
(EIA) were not yet concluded, China went ahead with the building of the Myitsone
Dam, the largest in Myanmar and Asia as well, on the Irrawaddy. Its projected
output of 3,600 MW is three times that of the Jinhong Dam on the Mekong’s main
current. But in December of 2009, following the visit of the Chinese vice prime
minister Xi Jinping to Myanmar, its output was raised from 3,600 MW to 6,000
MW or four times that of the Manwan Dam in Yunnan.
The construction site at the Myitsone Dam
[ Source: The Irrawaddy ]
The dam is located right at the junction of two tributaries named Mayhka and
Malihka, 42 kilometers north of Myitsone, the capital of Kachin State [Map I].
As projected by the International Rivers Network (IRN) headquartered in Berkeley,
California, if everything goes as planned, the Myitsone Dam will go into operation
in 2018. The lion’s share (90%) of its power output will be diverted to China
and the China Power Investment Corp. (CPI) will receive 70% of the profits.
If the political pundits are correct, Xi Jinping will replace Wen Jiabao as
Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party and Chairman of China in 2012.
Environmental Impact Assessments Kept Under Wraps
It was not until after the agreement between the two countries was signed
that CPI went through the motion of assigning a non-government organization
named Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association (BANCA) to undertake
an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the Myitsone Dam Project. BANCA
sounded the alarm concerning the risk of building the dam near an earthquake
fault line. It also expressed its concerns that deforestation in the area surrounding
the dam site would cause flooding in populated centers like the city of Myitkyina.
For those reasons, BANCA recommended that the dam be replaced by two smaller
ones but the idea was promptly brushed aside by the Chinese companies and the
Burmese military. Worse yet, pressured was exerted on this institution to keep
its report under wraps. Eventually the document was leaked to the public giving
birth to a widespread movement rallying intellectuals and environmental activists
under the common banner “Save the Irrawaddy”, the lifeline and cradle of the
September 29, 2011 is celebrated as a memorable day for it marks the first
time over 400 participants including Burmese officials met at a conference to
discuss the “pros and cons” of the project.
Doctor Tun Lwin, Director General of the Meteorology and Hydrology Office,
categorically voiced his opposition to the dam project citing its undesirable
impacts such as climate change, flooding, and reduction of current flow.
Another Burmese official, Win Myo, Director of EcoDevelopment Management Office
in Rangoon, also supported the above stand with this statement: “There is no
doubt that the dam will damage the environment. Another question is whether
the dam will really benefit the economy of Burma.” 
In total disregard to the growing opposition to the Myitsone Dam, the arrogant
Chinese construction companies and Burmese capitalists joined ranks to forge
ahead with the project.
According to the Kachin Environmental Organization headquartered in Chiang
Mai, Thailand, violations of human rights and repressions of the local population
at the dam site are all but daily occurrences. As the days go by, the natural
landscape and cultural vestiges of the Kachin people are being irrevocably destroyed.
Forty villages in the vicinity of the dam will be completely submerged by water
and more than 10,000 inhabitants will lose their homes to face forced relocation.
In the case of a dam collapse resulting from a phenomenon called reservoir-triggered
seismicity, millions of people living downstream will be visited with indescribable
sufferings. It is a recognized fact that northern Myanmar, Yunnan and the southeastern
provinces of China lie within a seismically active zone. 
June 2010 saw a succession of two Chinese leaders Xi Jinping and Prime Minister
Wen Jiabao on official visits to Myanmar “to discuss the energy issues”, a code
word for the common resolve of the two nations to intensify and speed up the
implementation of the hydroelectric dam projects in Myanmar. The Myitsone Dam
on the Irrawaddy is only one of the seven to be built. Moreover, besides the
China Power Investment Corp. (CPI), a second large Chinese dam building company
named Datang International Power Generation Co. (CDC) was called upon to help
achieve that goal.
[It would be worth mentioning here that this same company Datang was awarded
the extremely controversial bid to construct two of the 11 dams downstream the
Mekong’s main current: the Pak Beng (1,320 MW) and Xanakham(1,000 MW) Dams in
The strong opposition by the Kachin minority group, the armed skirmishes with
the local residents, and the bombings on 04/17/2010 resulting in the death of
4 Chinese workers and a number of wounded only provided a pretext for the Burmese
military to mete out harsher retaliatory measures like arrests, tortures and
suppression of the Kachin. Meanwhile the forcible relocation and pace of construction
still go on unabated.