Hkawn San is one of about 5,000 people who were resettled by Chinese contractors from the catchment area behind the projected Myitsone Dam, which Myanmar President Thein Sein abruptly and unexpectedly cancelled in 2011, shortly after he took office. Like those in far too many other resettlement villages, Hkawn San is not happy.
"The house here has problems, we get barely enough food to survive, but we do not get enough money, so people have to go around trying to find day work," she said, sitting in front of her new but already decaying house in Aung Myint Thar, one of the two resettlement villages located north of Myitkyina, the capital of Myanmar's Kachin State.
The Mytsone Dam was meant to be one of the world's largest, to be built at the confluence of the Mali Hka and the N'Mai Hka, the two streams that form the Irrawaddy, Myanmar's most fabled river. The Irrawaddy Valley is considered to be the birthplace of Burmese civilization . It is now a bone of contention between Myanmar, with whom the cancellation was enormously popular, and China, which is seeking to restart construction.
That is because the 139 meter-high behemoth would have produced electrical capacity of 6,000 megawatts, 90 percent of which would have been sent back to China. The catchment area was to be 1,300 meters long.
The cancellation came as a shock to China Power Investment Corporation (CPI), the state-owned Chinese developer that had already invested US$3.6 billion in the project, and surprised observers, who saw the decision as a sign that the new government was indeed headed toward reforms after decades of military rule.
There was no happy ending, however, for the farmers who had already been removed from their homes. While CPI's president Lu Qizhou claimed in 2011 that "the living standard of the migrants has been greatly improved compared with before, so they are satisfied of their living conditions," the displaced people tell a very different story.
Interviewed by Asia Sentinel, the villagers in Aung Myint Thar say they were more or less forcibly relocated by the military and that every family was provided by CPI with a house, a lakh – about US$80 – and provision of rice in exchange for nearly all of their possessions.
Those who owned land received better compensation, and in some cases extra benefits, including televisions, but hardly enough to provide for their families' needs. According to Ah Nan, the spokeswoman of the Kachin Development Networking Group (KNDG), a local civil society organization, "people who owned orange farms around the construction site tried to get compensation, but they got only 1000 kyats [$80 cents] for each orange tree."
Five years after moving in, the villagers' houses are already in a poor state, with creaking roofs and broken panes.
“We got US$5,000 to be divided among 10 people and this house. But the building is bad, it shakes with the wind and gets flooded during the rainy season,” said a 49-year-old woman, pointing to her house's potholed, earthen floor which has obviously been ravaged by heavy rains. Even if she and her children wanted to go back to her old hamlet, she said, they would have no place to stay: "When we had to leave, the military arrived with trucks and transported everything to the new village. They destroyed my house and told me that if I want to come back I could pick up the pieces."
The biggest problem is income, or rather the lack of it. The majority of those resettled used to work as farmers, earning a living by growing vegetables and breeding cattle, but many lost the latter when forced out of their homes, and the former cannot be replanted in Aung Myint Thar, which was built on sandy, sterile land.
Indeed, the town is a peculiar sight. Rows of similar shacks dot a clearing between the Irrawaddy and the slope of a mountain, a white church rises on one side and an empty hospital is located on the main road. But there are no fields, not even gardens – the soil, locals say, is so bad that nothing can grow, which is why some have begun defying the ban to return and go back to till their old fields, while others trek up into the forest to grow vegetables.
While there is no indication that their condition will improve in the future, the dam itself remains an open issue, for the decision to halt the project contained a catch: the construction would be stopped only for as long as the then government remained in power. Whether this was done to avoid overly angering Beijing or just to pass the buck to a new administration is unclear, but the dam will likely be one of the first issues Aung San Suu Kyi will have to address in Myanmar's relations with China.
Reopening it would bolster the country's ties with Beijing, one of the country's major investors, but would deal a blow to the NLD's popularity with the public in general and with the Kachins in particular, since opposition to the project is ubiquitous in Myanmar's far north.
The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), one of Burma's largest insurgent groups, says it opposes to the project, too. "The KIO disagrees with the construction of the dam. In 2009 we even sent a letter to the Burmese government, the Chinese government and CPI," argued Dawng Hka, the KIO's Technical Advisory Team's spokesperson in Myitkyina.
The dam, he said, is a danger to both Kachin State and Myanmar in general, since the Irrawaddy is one of the country's main sources of water.
"It is an environmental issue and a military issue, too, since the dam will need security and the government will send at least two battalions of soldiers, which will create troubles. We will reject the restart," he said.
Michele Penna (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Italian journalist stationed in Myanmar