By Choosing Culture Over Energy Investment, Myanmar Sends A Strong Message (Part II of II)

Click here for Part I of this series: Laos Chooses Money Over Culture and Society.

Myanmar stands to win infrastructure, electricity, and economic development with completion of the Myitsone Dam, but chooses to preserve their culture and society instead.

Myanmar: Why Hydropower?

Unlike Laos, Myanmar is fortunate enough to be surrounded by the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea in the Indian Ocean. This geographical location has served the country well by allowing Myanmar to conduct overseas trade and rank 78th in the world for GDP Purchasing Power Parity (well ahead of Laos at 129). Although commendable, Myanmar is far from being a developed country and still struggles with providing its population with a better life since the election of its new civilian government in 2010.

Myanmar’s economic development struggles are apparent when looking at the country’s energy use.  For instance, Myanmar’s energy mix is strongly dependent on waste energy like Laos with an increasing amount of natural gas becoming part of their primary energy use. The country’s power industry is still rudimentary and inefficient, with some estimates indicating that only 13% of the country is electrified. Myanmar’s electrification process is estimated to increasingly rely on foreign natural gas, but the government is now considering hydropower as a more attractive alternative due to its abundance in Myanmar.

The Myitsone Dam: 15.8% of Myanmar’s Potential Installed Hydroelectric Capacity

Myanmar’s low electrification rate and growing openness to the international community has prompted the government to increase living standards. However, dependence on foreign energy is not an option for the long-isolated country. Yet, at the same time, foreign investment is needed to procure the expertise, equipment, and funds needed for the country’s estimated hydroelectric potential installed capacity of 38,000 mW.

The Myitsone Dam is at the middle of this debate,  as the dam is a joint-venture between the Myanmar’s Ministry of Electric Power, Burmese company Asia World, and the China Power Investment Corporation. The project is estimated to cost $US 3.6 Billion and will have an installed capacity of 6000 mW (15.8% of Myanmar’s potential installed capacity). The dam, once completed, will be the 15th largest dam in the world and be first in a series of 6 other dams on the Irrawaddy River (Myanmar’s largest waterway, akin to Laos’ Mekong River).

The Social and Environmental Controversy

Unlike Laos, Myanmar is not held accountable by the international community for their hydroelectric projects as they are not a signee to any shared-river convention. Myanmar also does not have many domestic regulations concerning the protection of the environment or biodiversity. But, the Myitsone Dam still holds a sizable amount of environmental and social controversy for the Myanmar government to be concerned about.

In terms of environmental impacts, the Myitsone Dam is to be built at the start of the Irrawaddy River where the Mali and N’Mai Rivers meet. An impact study by the China Power Investment Corporation indicates that migratory fish species will be most likely wiped out, and the dam will affect the rice paddy ecosystems further downstream. The proposed site of the dam is also 100km away from a fault line, increasing the fears that the dam will be unable to withstand a strong earthquake in the future. In terms of societal impacts, the dam’s presence will force the direct displacement of some 15,000 individuals and 40 villages.

Society and Culture Trumps Money

Despite having similar obstacles to Laos in the construction of the Myitsone Dam, Myanmar current government has decided against the construction of the dam. But why?

1) Cradle of Burmese Civilization

The construction site of the Myitsone Dam is in a very precarious location for the Burmese people as their culture and identity is closely tied to the Irrawaddy River. This area is considered to be the cradle of Burmese civilization, and is the primary source of food and economic activity for many Burmese.

Specifically for the Kachin minority group, the area surrounding the Myitsone Dam will submerge many of their cultural and historical buildings, sites, and artifacts. This minority group has already been actively fighting the Myanmar military, and will continue to do so as they see the dam as a threat to their way of life.

2) Chinese Imperialism

A large factor in the current government’s decision against the construction of the dam is the negative image China has in Myanmar at the moment. For years, Myanmar has relied heavily on China as an ally due to the country’s isolation by developed countries for their human rights violations. This has led many Chinese firms to openly invest in Myanmar, while bringing in their own labor to support their business functions. However, to the Burmese people, this is exploitation. Chinese business are spreading all over the country and taking over local jobs. They get preferential treatment in contracts with the government and are known to discriminate against hiring local individuals. And now, they are expanding into the extraction of Myanmar’s natural resources.

This imperialism has pulled negative public views on the Chinese, with the Myitsone Dam not the exception. In this case, about 90% of the electricity generated by the Myitsone Dam will be sold to Southern State Grid and used in Southern China. Only a very with a small amount of hydroelectric power will reserved for Myanmar citizens, not enough to justify the long-term damages the dam will cause on the country’s other economic functions. The majority of the benefits for Myanmar will be based more on promises for regional development (roads, businesses, etc.) and direct investment. However, both the Myanmar government and people feel that the Chinese care little about their safety or well-being considering China Power Investment Corporation’s insistence on building the Myitsone Dam despite examples of less damaging alternatives. (China Power Investment Corporation’s impact study suggests the same amount of power can be generated through two dams on the Irrawaddy River’s tributaries to avoid harming the main river)

3) Political Legitimacy

The Myitsone Dam is an example of the power of the previous military governments, and their undying loyalty for the Chinese government. By stalling the project, however, the newly elected (2010) civilian government led by President Thein Sein is illustrating the need for the government to gain political legitimacy and differentiate themselves from the military junta.

The Myitsone Dam has garnered national attention due to the dam’s societal and environmental impacts, particularly arguments brought up by conservationists, scholars, and even political activist- Aung San Suu Kyi. By not going ahead with the Myitsone Dam, President Thein Sein and his advisers are illustrating their understanding and respect for public sentiment. This move also illustrates the President’s right to control the country’s natural resources and hope to move away from China as their only ally. These factors, combined with looser restrictions on tourists, media, and political pardons signal a very different Burmese government that wishes to receive the respect and adoration from their citizens. However, it is important to note that the current government term will end in 2015. There are still chances that the Myitsone Dam will resume construction, however, the political climate at that time will determine if this dam will ever be completed.

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Click here for the first part to this series, analyzing why Laos chose money over society and culture.

Click here for an in-depth analysis to the Spratly Islands Dispute.

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One thought on “By Choosing Culture Over Energy Investment, Myanmar Sends A Strong Message (Part II of II)

  1. Jennifer Doherty says:

    Your article is excellent, let me write a couple of comments.

    The World Bank estimates that forcible “development-induced displacement and resettlement” now affects 10 million people per year. According to the World Bank an estimated 33 million people have been displaced by development projects such as dams, urban development and irrigation canals in India alone.
    India is well ahead in this respect. A country with as many as over 3600 large dams within its belt can never be the exceptional case regarding displacement. The number of development induced displacement is higher than the conflict induced displacement in India. According to Bogumil Terminski an estimated more than 10 million people have been displaced by development each year.
    Athough the exact number of development-induced displaced people (DIDPs) is difficult to know, estimates are that in the last decade 90–100 million people have been displaced by urban, irrigation and power projects alone, with the number of people displaced by urban development becoming greater than those displaced by large infrastructure projects (such as dams). DIDPs outnumber refugees, with the added problem that their plight is often more concealed.

    This is what experts have termed “development-induced displacement.” According to Michael Cernea, a World Bank analyst, the causes of development-induced displacement include water supply (dams, reservoirs, irrigation); urban infrastructure; transportation (roads, highways, canals); energy (mining, power plants, oil exploration and extraction, pipelines); agricultural expansion; parks and forest reserves; and population redistribution schemes.

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