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Myitsone and the failure of China’s ‘anti-ethno-politics’ approach

Burmese activists chant at a protest against the Myitsone dam project in Malaysia, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

Northern Burma’s Myitsone mega-project failed because its Chinese proponents systematically dismissed Kachin and Burmese nationalism. The Chinese hydropower developers’ strategy was what I call “anti-ethno-politics”: when the state, NGOs, businesses, or other actors try to depoliticise sensitive questions about how their own activities clash with a nationalism. Such anti-ethno-politics is the Chinese government’s dominant approach to ethnic minorities and economic development in China. But it clearly failed in Burma. Why?

Most media, NGO, and scholarly accounts have treated the Myitsone Dam controversy as primarily about environmental conflict, economic development and profit-sharing, the success of civic democracy, or global geopolitical rivalry. Both Western and Chinese public discussions have been particularly excited about narratives of US-China geopolitical rivalry over Burma’s foreign policy direction. But casting Myitsone as all about global geopolitics underrepresents the will and the role of various social actors around Myitsone, such as Kachin nationalists and activists from central Burma, whose politics are absolutely not about those inter-state contests. Thus, I suggest an alternative explanation.

My anthropological research between 2010 and 2015 has revealed that the multi-billion-dollar project collapsed due to the clash of three nationalisms: Kachin, Burmese, and Chinese. Kachin nationalists, who began actively campaigning against the mega-project in 2004, were the first to oppose it. They came to view the suffering of displaced villagers at the Myitsone confluence as an ethno-national issue and the hydropower project as a threat to Kachin national self-determination. Indeed, the project had sidelined Kachin ethno-political actors and the armed quasi-state of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), while strengthening the Burmese military-state’s presence. Many Kachin observers analyzed the mega-project according to contemporary Kachin nationalist understandings as a Burmese regime conspiracy against the Kachin nation and their “God-given homeland.”

Later, some Burman initiators of the “Save the Irrawaddy” advocacy in central Burma used the Myitsone project as a common enemy to build solidarity between ethnic Burmans and minorities at a time when Kachin popular hatred of Burmans had intensified due to the war and the Burmese Army’s war crimes. “Save the Irrawaddy” became popular across Burma, though, because many ethnic Burman opponents framed the dams on the country’s main river as an existential threat to the Burmese nation by China. For lowland Burmese campaigners, the Myitsone symbolized the perceived Chinese exploitation and “colonization” of Burma in alliance with the country’s hated military regime. When war resumed between the Burmese Army and the KIO in June 2011, it effectively suspended the mega-dam construction, already before then president Thein Sein’s decision to halt the project in September.

Thus, there was altogether a social history beyond global geopolitical rivalries. This history eventually made Thein Sein’s controversial decision thinkable in the first place. His decision had important explanations and consequences in terms of inter-state relations, but it was preceded by an originally and primarily ethno-political causality.

What followed the official suspension demonstrates how Chinese businesspeople replicated their domestic political logics when tackling foreign social worlds. Their responses against the Myitsone Dam suspension focused on disproving prominent claims of ecological and seismic dangers, economic exploitation, and mistreatment of resettled people. However, toward the ethno-political motivations of dam opponents, the Chinese dam advocates generally continued to put forth an anti-political silence. In their public discourse which I examined, they always avoided the name “Kachin,” making it sound like those people or politics are nothing. Other times, they dismissed the relevance of Kachin nationalism by invoking common Chinese government rhetoric about how the state brings benevolent development to “tradition-bound” ethnic minorities. For instance, one Myitsone dam lobbyist wrote: “We must prevent some people from using the slogans of protecting cultural heritage to obstruct the social progress. For example, we cannot preserve the black slave system in the US and the serf system in Tibet with the reason of protecting the cultural heritages for generations.”

More commonly, they used Chinese state-nationalist rhetoric about alleged Western, especially US, conspiracies to instigate intellectually vulnerable masses against China. For example, one Chinese pro-Beijing newspaper reported: “In the completed Aung Myint Thar resettlement village […], there are NGOs quietly funding the resettled people to incite them to oppose the hydropower project constructed by the Chinese company. […] Such things have led to a saying popular in the local area, i.e., “some people just leave while carrying the US dollar cash after inflaming the locals.” I have mentioned to several anti-dam activists the claim that Western governments coordinated both Kachin campaigning and “Save the Irrawaddy.” People react with disbelief, shock, and amusement.

Considering these Chinese ethnocentric responses alongside the Kachin and Burman nationalist reasons for opposing the project, we may conclude that nationalist suspicions about hostile conspiracies deeply marked the Myitsone conflict as a whole. The Kachin analyses about “Burman ethnocide strategies” were matched by Chinese conspiratorial analyses about “Western plots” and by Burman popular analyses of Chinese desiring to “take over” Burma.

Myitsone, then, is a story about the failure of anti-ethno-politics. The ongoing efforts by Chinese proponents to revitalize the mega-project remain strategically inadequate because their replications of China’s anti-political and state-nationalist approach cannot win over either popular or elite opposition in Burma. With each day that goes by since the project’s suspension, the hydropower corporations are losing considerable amounts of money. But even though their policies may satisfy some domestic Chinese audiences, they still cannot address the inescapable realities of the intense ethnic politics around Myitsone and the historical entanglements between China and Burma. Indeed, the hydropower developers are mistaken when in a promotional film that I viewed they describe the Myitsone region as a “mystic faraway land” of pagodas, elephants, and tropical diseases. Instead, Myitsone is also a specific place, with diverse peoples, complex histories, a brutal state–society conflict, widespread public alarm against Chinese-led resource grabs, popular ethno-political movements, and religious nationalist worldviews. The trajectories of all these forces are not guided by supposedly omnipresent Western conspirators and neither were they subdued by the strategic anti-ethno-political silences of the Chinese developers.

In sum, my ethnographic study of these social worlds and their diverse people suggests a desperate future for this embattled mega-project. Opposing and defeating the Myitsone Dam has now become a key symbol for altogether too many competing social futures: (1) for the Kachin popular commitment to ethno-nationalist futures (thus binding future KIO governments and other Kachin national leaders to not reverse their opposition); (2) for the globally celebrated “New Burma,” which purports to pursue democracy, an end to civil war, economic growth, and non-dependence from China (thus binding Burma’s future governments, democrats, many nationalists, and some military); and (3) for the Burmese activisms that pursue environmentalist futures, inter-ethnic solidarity amid war horrors, and land rights for dispossessed populations (thus binding much of the country’s civil society to not give up this idolized victory). Metaphorically speaking, the currents of those social worlds flooded this massive dam. If my analysis proves to be correct, then the final failure of this anti-ethno-political model of development might be in not recognizing this.

* Readers interested in more detail and discussion, please see my article Nationalism and anti-ethno-politics: why ‘Chinese Development’ failed at Myanmar’s Myitsone Dam in the journal Eurasian Geography and Economics. The article is also available for *free* here: https://osf.io/6wqvg.

Laur Kiik is a junior researcher of Southeast Asian Studies at Tallinn University, Estonia, who will begin PhD studies at Oxford University in the UK this autumn. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect DVB editorial policy.