Residents forced out of their homes for the Myitsone dam project say that those who have tried to return to their old, as-yet-unflooded houses are being threatened with arrest, even though construction on the dam is officially on hold and conditions in their new village have left them unable to make a living.
A woman sits beside a road near the site of the proposed Myitsone dam in May. (Boothee/The Myanmar Times)
Ko Zaw Lon from Tanpe village said that on November 29 Myitkyina township’s administrator U Thein Tun and a group of policemen came to Tanpe – one of the villages on land that would be flooded by the controversial dam project if it is completed – and told those who had returned that they must leave again, even though construction has been halted. Almost one-third of the 200 households relocated from Tanpe have returned to the village.
“He told us we can’t live here anymore and that this place is owned by the company and isn’t ours anymore,” Ko Zaw Lon said. “If we will not go back to the new village, he said we would have action taken against us under section 188.”
Section 188 states that a person not following an order of a public servant who is legally permitted to give such an order can be jailed for a month, fined or both. If the failure to obey causes danger or leads to rioting, the punishment jumps to six months in jail, a fine or both.
Originally scheduled to be completed in 2017, the US$3.6 billion Myitsone dam project was to be built by Chinese state-owned firm China Power International (CPI).
The project, however, faced a flurry of criticism for its impact on the environment, its displacement of villagers and the fact that the vast majority of energy produced would be sold to China. The site’s location - in the midst of conflict between the government and Kachin armed ethnic groups - also caused delays.
To widespread popular acclaim, President U Thein Sein in September 2011 suspended all progress, delaying the final decision on the site’s future until after the end of his term, which expires in 2016. But even with the dam’s construction in limbo, residents are being prevented from returning to their homes.
“In past, we had hopes because we had good livelihoods,” Ko Tu Khaung, originally from Tanpe, told The Myanmar Times. “The surrounding of Myitsone was also beneficial to us.”
Residents of Tanpe, Mazut and Lape villages were transferred out of the area in 2010 and 2011 and moved to a new village, Aung Myin Thar, one of two newly constructed model villages built to house more than 2600 people who were to be displaced for the project.
The transition hasn’t been smooth, Ko Tu Khaung said.
In Tanpe residents used to earned their living from plantations, farming and fishery jobs. In their new location, however, they are having “a very difficult time” – so much so that nearly 60 out of Tanpe’s over 200 households have chosen to return to their old village site.
“It’s very hard to earn our living in the new village,” Ko Tu Khaung said. “We can’t grow any crops there so we are returning to our old village.”
Ko Zaw Lon said residents had been told in the past that they could return home so long as the dam was not operational.
But the township administrator took pictures of inhabited houses and warned them they should leave or face potential charges. As a result, the possibility of the Myitsone dam’s construction resuming is no longer Tanpe residents’ biggest worry. “Now we are worrying we will face eviction today or tomorrow.”