Amid Burma (Myanmar) Election, China-Built Dam Highlights Plight of Ethnic Minorities

By Correspondent, A | The Christian Science Monitor, November 8, 2010 | Go to article overview

Amid Burma (Myanmar) Election, China-Built Dam Highlights Plight of Ethnic Minorities


Correspondent, A, The Christian Science Monitor


Ethnic minorities are grappling with a rush by outsiders to exploit their natural resources that is stirring tensions amid the first election in Burma (Myanmar) in two decades.

A pro-junta party appears set to win Sunday's multiparty election in Burma (Myanmar) which was fraught with irregularities and omissions.

For the country's ethnic minorities, the stakes are high. As well as seeking greater freedoms under a new Constitution, many are also grappling with a rush by outsiders to exploit their natural resources, a move which is stirring tensions.

In this riverside community of ethnic Kachins, April began with a bang: a string of mysterious predawn explosions near the site of a giant Chinese-financed dam that is under construction. Authorities rolled up the usual suspects - disgruntled locals, rebel sympathizers - but later released them without charges. Security was tightened on access roads to the dam.

Then came the gold miners. Equipped with pumps and drills, and armed with permits from the military and a local militia group, they began digging up riverbanks and rice fields, and dumping cyanide- laced rock into the river. The aim is to drive locals out, so that the dam builders can proceed unhindered, say villagers. On a wooden house opposite a redbrick Catholic church, a handwritten sign reads, "Protect Us, Mary."

The Myitsone dam is one of seven planned on tributaries of the mighty Irrawaddy River as it winds through the homeland of Burma's Kachin minority. It highlights the accelerating grab for natural resources by Burma's neighbors, defying the wishes of local populations who rarely see the benefits of such projects. Many are ethnic minorities whose rights have been trampled by the ruling junta, which held a rare election on Nov. 7.

RELATED STORY: Burma (Myanmar) holds first vote in 20 years

The project is due for completion by 2017 and would eventually displace about 10,000 people and flood an area the size of New York City. Most of the power will be exported to energy-hungry China, which is also building an ambitious pipeline to transport crude oil and offshore gas from southwest Burma.

Eyeing Burma's resources

Other keen buyers of Burma's resources include India, Thailand, and South Korea. Approved foreign investment in the first seven months of the year rose to $16 billion, according to official data, up from less than $1 billion in 2007. Western companies generally steer clear of Burma, which is subject to United States, Canadian, and European sanctions.

Kachin groups have unsuccessfully petitioned both the Chinese government and Burma's military rulers to halt the dam. It poses a safety risk, some argue, because of its location near a major earthquake fault line. Any collapse in the dam's basin would threaten the Kachin capital, Myitkyina, which lies down river, and those living in its hinterland. …

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