Inter-National Conspiracy? Speculating on the Myitsone
Dam Controversy in China, Burma, Kachin, and a Displaced
School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, Oxford University, Oxford, United Kingdom of Great
Britain and Northern Ireland;
School of Humanities, Tallinn University, Tallinn, Estonia
In 2011, Burma/Myanmar one-sidedly halted the billions-worth
construction of Myitsone Dam, derailing China’s then-largest-ever
hydroelectric project abroad and creating a lasting controversy in
China–Burma relations. This decision followed an unprecedented
public outcry in Burma and a decade of inter-ethnic resistance
against this mega-project. This article explores how, throughout
the Myitsone Dam controversy, actors at dierent scales and in
three national societies speculated about hidden hostile inter-
national plots behind the project or the resistance. Drawing on
more than two years of ethnographic eldwork in 2010–2019,
interviews, and media analysis, this article takes seriously many
Chinese, Burmese, and Kachin voices – from ambassadors and
journalists, to activists and village elders – who claim or dispute
various hidden hostile inter-national strategies. The Myitsone case
shows how deeply inter-national speculating shapes Burma, often
in ways that erase ethnic-minority actors, popular movements, or
dispossession. More broadly, it shows how nationalist thinking and
competing nationalisms can shape ideas about a frontier of
resource extraction. Finally, ethnographic research has often
revealed how marginalised people’s conspiratorial narratives can
reect realities, but this study suggests using ethnography to let
people challenge dominant conspiracy theories about themselves.
Researchers across ethnographic disciplines, International
Relations, and critical geopolitics face the analytical and ethical
challenge of both contextualising and evaluating any people’s
claim that someone plots against them.
This article explores popular and elite speculations about a spectacularly
stalled resource-extraction project – the Chinese-led multi-billion-dollar
Myitsone hydropower project in the ethnic Kachin region of war-torn
Burma/Myanmar. When in 2011, September 30, Burma’s President Thein
Sein one-sidedly halted building the Myitsone mega-dam, he stunned both
Chinese, Burmese, and worldwide observers and unleashed a diplomatic
CONTACT Laur Kiik email@example.com School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, University of
Oxford, Oxford, OX2 6PE UK
2023, VOL. 28, NO. 1, 72–98
© 2020 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
scandal with Beijing. Citing ‘the people’s will’, he responded to an unprece-
dented and snowballing public outcry in this long military-dominated coun-
try. This decision heralded Burma’s then globally-noted transition from
military dictatorship to the current military–civilian partial democracy. The
abrupt suspension of a controversial resource-extraction project seemed like
a triumph of environmentalism.
Yet, many in Burma, China, and elsewhere asked: Why really did Burma’s
president halt this mega-project? Why did the Burmese military rulers betray
their political and economic friendship with the powerful Beijing government?
The Burmese dam opponents asked other questions: Why is Beijing trying to
build a mega-dam on Burma’s lifeblood, the Irrawaddy River? Burma’s ethnic
Kachin nationalists asked, instead, why are the Burmese government and
Chinese companies trying to ﬂood our heartland? Such inter-national con-
troversy around Myitsone Dam has continued for years, especially because
Beijing occasionally requests restarting its construction as part of the Eurasian
infrastructure giga-project, Belt-and-Road.
This article does not answer the above questions – for some answers, see my
other article (Kiik 2020) – but rather seeks to understand why so many
competing questions and suspicions arose. How did speculations about big
geopolitics, strategies, and conspiracies diﬀer between Chinese, Burmese,
Kachin, and displaced village actors? How did competing nationalisms shape
these speculations? What are the purposes and eﬀects of such speculations at
an inter-nationally contested frontier of resource extraction?
When saying ‘inter-national,’ I include here not only the Chinese, Burmese,
and others, but also Kachins as an ethnic nation. This deﬁnition, discussed
more below, challenges normative state-centric deﬁnitions, which equate
international-ness with state-to-state or inter-governmental relations.
My approach to such an inter-national controversy builds on the research
ﬁelds of critical geopolitics, broader human geography, and International
Relations that have increasingly attended to non-state, non-elite, ‘local’, and
‘everyday’ actors and visions. The article contributes speciﬁcally to the study of
‘popular geopolitics’ – the commonplace, mainstream-cultural, and emotional
understandings, representations, and practices of worldwide politics and ter-
ritorial struggles (Dittmer and Dodds 2008; Jones 2012).
The Chinese, Burmese, Kachin, and other explanations, which this article
explores, largely claim, or insinuate, something like hidden hostile geostrategy
or inter-national conspiracy. Even though stories about conspiracies – some
others’ secret plans to harm us – abound across human societies across history
and are intrinsic to politics, social scientists rarely focus on ‘conspiracy
theories.’ Such aversion reﬂects how people usually use this word to mock
paranoid and groundless ideas. However, recent research in human geography
and related ﬁelds has explored conspiracy theories as a globally widespread
form of both popular and elite geopolitical analysis (Jones 2012; Sakwa 2012).
Such an approach resonates with social anthropology, which has a rich litera-
ture of valuing and examining rumour, speculation, and conspiracy theories.
Social anthropologists and other ethnographers have usually refrained from
judging whether a conspiracy theory is correct or false, but rather shown –
through social context – how popular conspiracy theories reveal and indirectly
criticise power, social estrangement, inequity, and injustice (Boyer 2006;
Johnson-Schlee 2019; Marcus 1999; Mathur 2015; Rakopoulos 2018;
Silverstein 2002; West and Sanders 2003).
This article contributes to these ethnographies of popular geopolitics and
conspiracy theories by showing not only how speculative stories about great
power politics may critique existing social structures and inter-national rela-
tions, but also how such speculations’ purpose and eﬀect can instead be to
erase local agency and resistance. Thus, the Myitsone case aﬃrms that ‘claims
about conspiracies should be seen as narratives that are intrinsically linked to
power relations and the production of foreign policy knowledge’ (Aistrope and
Bleiker 2018). The article ﬁnds that believing and talking geopolitical and
conspiracy theories can work both to criticise or help dispossession and
repression at a site of inter-national natural-resource grabbing, and both to
encourage or dismiss resistance.
Moreover, the article shows how ethnographic research can foreground
voices of marginalised people who challenge conspiracy theories and geopo-
litical narratives that have erased them. Foregrounding those voices shows
why analysis of the Myitsone controversy must begin from the local-village,
the ethnic Kachin, and the later lowland Burmese anti-dam resistance – and
must understand these resistance movements as relational, composed of
diverse actors, and resulting from real-life experiences. The Myitsone contro-
versy’s Chinese pro-dam discourses, too, need to be contextualised on their
own terms. Thus, in this article, I try to take various conﬂicting discourses
seriously and critically, regardless of their institutional status or my political
sympathy. I present, contextualise, and contrast diverse voices telling stories of
nation, geopolitics, and conspiracy. These stories tell about a leaked diplo-
matic cable, wildly diﬀerent environmental impact assessments, company staﬀ
behaviour in a foreign village, and brutal counterinsurgency tactics. Below,
such a cross-scale focus helps us notice that popular geopolitical thinking and
formal international-relations discourse echo each other.
By setting diverse voices side-by-side, I ﬁnd that a mode of nationalist
analysis or speculation has prevailed across the most disparate actors and
scales – from project-displaced villagers and minority ethno-national activists,
to worldwide newspapers, corporate leaders, and powerful governments.
Nationalist thinking views nations – rather than individuals, governments,
the rich, the poor, religions, spirits, or others – as the key actors in worldwide
aﬀairs. Thus, such thinking tends to blur distinct actors within or beyond
nations. Moreover, nationalists deﬁne one’s homeland as the world’s centre,
74 L. KIIK
not as a mere edge or frontier for somewhere else. Below, many Chinese,
Burmese, and Kachin observers all tend to assume that other countries-and-
nations have coherence, directionality, and strategy, speciﬁcally against our
Finally, to this journal’s Special Issue on ‘Myanmar’s resource frontiers’
(Sarma, Faxon and Roberts, forthcoming), this article adds the country’s most
talked-about resource extraction mega-project. Indeed, the article is about
talking about that project, showing how a resource frontier becomes inter-
national spectacle, shaped by accusations and counter-accusations of hostile
plots. Literature on resource frontiers has focused largely on political-
economy and political-ecology approaches. This article complements such
approaches by taking seriously popular and elite narratives of geostrategy
and conspiracy, to show what worldviews and underlying forces they reveal,
especially revealing the cross-scalar force of nationalism. Doing so, the study
meshes with others in this Special Issue, for example, by foregrounding how a
resource frontier is remade at scales from world-region to village
(Barbesgaard, forthcoming), especially through inter-ethnic/inter-national
contention over homelands (Faxon, forthcoming; O’Morchoe, forthcoming;
This study draws on more than two years of ethnographic ﬁeldwork in
Burma between 2010 and 2019. Fieldwork took place mostly in northernmost
Burma’s Kachin State, including occasionally at the Myitsone Dam area itself,
and more brieﬂy in Burma’s central city Yangon. I used English, Kachin
Jingpho, and Chinese languages. Fieldwork involved conventional ethno-
graphic methods: participant-observation in relevant social circles; semi-
structured interviews; and media analysis. All interviewees have been anon-
ymised to protect people’s safety and privacy when discussing sensitive topics,
because the studied social circles are small, and people might otherwise be
recognised. The article’s Chinese discourses mostly come from studying
Chinese media and written materials.
The article proceeds by ﬁrst discussing Burma’s relationship to inter-
national speculations. Next, the article’s four core sections explore disparate
voices – ﬁrst, from China, then, from Burma, Kachin, and a displaced village –
which assert, or dispute, hidden hostile inter-national strategies around the
Dam. A sub-section criticises certain poorly evidenced stories about big
geopolitics. The article concludes by discussing how inter-national specula-
tions can either help or resist dispossession at frontiers of natural-resource
Speculating on/in Burma and Kachin
Burma/Myanmar suits researching speculations on hidden geopolitics and
conspiracies. After the 1962 military coup, the study of Burmese politics
came to resemble Kremlinology, because researchers of this closed, author-
itarian, and war-torn country often needed to depend on hearsay, speculation,
and anecdote. Burma’s military-state authorities restricted journalism, out-
siders’ visits, social-science research, and information ﬂow, while focusing on
propaganda and psychological warfare against its enemies. Occasionally, junta
leaders based abrupt decisions on astrology. Studying Burma’s politics was
sometimes called ‘reading the tea leaves,’ referring to the Burmese culture of
teashops where men, mostly, gather to talk gossip, business, and politics.
Under the military’s tyrannical rule, everyday talk on politics involved
much fear, distrust, and rumour – not least about the country’s deep ethnic
and religious tensions and violence. Burma is an ethnically diverse country,
where the majority group’s ethnocratic military-state has, since independence
in 1948, clashed against more than a dozen other ethnic nations’ armed
movements. Accusations of a deadly foreign or native conspiracy have
emerged both from the military-state’s propaganda and from among political
dissidents or ethnic and religious minorities. These accusations have long
motivated targeted violence. Thus, Gravers (1999) writes about ‘nationalism
as political paranoia in Burma’ and Skidmore (2004) about people’s fears
under the junta’s ‘terror making.’ Recent worldwide discussions about online
disinformation, fake news, and hate speech often discuss how, in the 2010s’
newly Internet-accessing Burma, the social-media platform Facebook helped
spread rumours against minority Muslims and a ‘global Islamic conspiracy,’
fuelling popular support for Buddhist pogroms against Muslims and the 2017
large-scale ethnic cleansing against Rohingya people (Cheesman 2017; Fink
2018; Schissler 2016).
Rumours, speculations, and conspiracy theories about ethnicity and conﬂict
are particularly relevant for this article, because the Myitsone hydropower
mega-project lies amidst an active conﬂict region. The project’s location in
northernmost Burma is home largely to Kachin people – an ethnic nation of
below million people. Since the early 1960s, this region has been engulfed in
war between Burma’s military-state, dominated by ethnic-majority Bamars,
and the insurgent Kachin Independence Organisation’s roughly ten-thousand
strong army (KIO/A). The KIO has evolved into an ethno-national proto-state
that governs certain territories and populations, running education, health-
care, and other systems (Dean 2005). The Myitsone hydropower project began
in the mid-2000s, amid amid a tense ceaseﬁre, which was signed in 1994 and
broke down in 2011, when war resumed (Sadan 2016). Since 2011, more than
100,000 war-displaced people have lived for several years in makeshift camps.
Notably, unlike the majority ethnic Bamars, whose Buddhism has informed
Burmese state nationalism, Kachins are mainly Christians.
Such little-understood and supposed ‘frontier nations’ as Burma and
Kachins can easily become narrated – from the outside – through imaginaries
about greater-power machinations. In the 2000s, one outside narrative was
76 L. KIIK
that Burma is China’s vassal state. Beijing had supposedly even established
military bases in Burma – Selth (2007) shows how Indian analysts often
propagated this misinformation. After the 2011 Myitsone Dam suspension,
Burma’s democratising reforms, and the concurrent Washington’s pivot to
Asia, the narrative shifted towards Burma being amidst a US–China geopoli-
tical turf-war. Recently, Western discussions about Burma tend to get side-
tracked when people ask: ‘But let’s talk about the real elephant-in-the-room:
China!’ A few Western journalists told me that worldwide newspapers will buy
their stories about anything in northern Burma only if they package it into the
best-selling theme of ‘Rising China.’ As we will see below, Chinese discussions
about Burma tend to get similarly side-tracked – by raising the geopolitical
spectre of USA and Japan. All such stories tend to underestimate Burma’s own
domestic dynamics, not least the power of competing nationalisms across the
Geopolitical discourses sometimes present Burma’s minority ethnic
nations, such as Kachins, and their nationalist movements as if chess pieces
amidst greater-power rivalries – thus feeding into long-held Bamar suspicions
against minorities. Bamar leaders and publics have long seen Kachins and
Burma’s other minorities as if naïve hill peoples, whom the British colonists or
Western Christian missionaries brainwashed and misled into opposing Bamar
rule (Sadan 2013). More recently, Bamar political analyses have dismissed the
Kachin Independence Organisation and northern Burma’s other armed rebel
movements as if the Chinese government’s tools for controlling Burma. In
China, this misrepresentation has long reversed: the KIO and Kachins are
sometimes viewed as too Christian, pro-West, potentially US-allied, and thus
untrustworthy (Sun 2012). Thus, such many-sided speculations erase the KIO,
the broader ethno-national social movements, Burma’s other armed organisa-
tions, and other broader ethno-national social movements – by neglecting not
only their legitimacy, vision, and capacity, but also internal diversity, social
dynamics, and complexity (Brenner 2015; Dean 2011; Hedström 2016). They
thus contribute to leading Bamar nationalists towards supporting the Burmese
military as if the defender of Buddhist Burma, including against the many
supposed puppets of China or the West.
Burma’s marginalised non-Bamar and ‘frontier’ publics, too, may tend to
view complex social worlds as secretive struggles between competing nations
over resources, territory, and survival – in that sense, as geopolitics or inter-
national conspiracy. My previous writing (Kiik 2016a) explores Kachin pop-
ular analyses, which speculate on how ‘the Bamars’ – or, the Bamar military-
state leaders – are planning to destroy the Kachin nation through hidden
strategies. Such broad suspicion stems from long-term realities, observation,
and experiences. Yet, it also harms everyday inter-ethnic Kachin–Bamar rela-
tions and civilian cooperation, including when opposing such projects as the
Considering Burma’s ongoing violence, I try below to not only describe and
contextualise, but also carefully assess any claims of inter-national conspiracy
or hidden strategy, to avoid furthering misinformation or hate. The article
contributes to the study of conspiracy theories and geopolitical speculations in
and on Burma by showing how the analytical, political, and ethical challenges
connect. The Myitsone Dam controversy, which has inspired countless com-
peting explanations – some more, some less plausible, all with disparate
political eﬀects at disparate scales – is an excellent example.
The Myitsone Dam Controversy
Prepared by Burmese and Chinese companies and governments since the early
2000s and launched in the mid-2000s, the Upstream Irrawaddy hydropower
mega-project envisions constructing seven large dams on two rivers in north-
ernmost Burma’s sub-tropical Himalayan foothills. These dams would culmi-
nate with the largest one near the rivers’ conﬂuence – known as Myitsone –
which marks the beginning of Burma’s great river, the Irrawaddy
(Ayeyarwady). This project was China’s then-largest-ever hydropower project
abroad. Its seven dams could altogether generate around 18,000 mega-watts,
nearing the world’s largest dam, China’s Three Gorges Dam. 90% of electricity
generated was to supply southern China’s power grid, while the Burmese
government was to receive billions of dollars and some badly needed electri-
city. The main Myitsone Dam’s reservoir was to ﬂood over 700 square kilo-
metres, thus displacing more than 10,000 people.
Underground resistance against the Myitsone mega-dam began immedi-
ately after its ﬁrst scoping studies at local villages. Risking the military-state’s
repressions, some villagers wrote protest letters, collected signatures, and
urged authorities to stop the project. As the project moved forward during
the mid-2000s, resistance spread to broader ethnic Kachin society, and ﬁnally,
in 2010, to lowland Burmese cities and its ethnic-majority Bamar publics.
China’s ‘anti-ethno-political’ development approach failed to consider or
overcome how the Myitsone project clashes against both Kachin and
Burmese nationalisms (Kiik 2016b). Kachins sought to save and keep control
over their ethno-national heartland and villages around the famous Myitsone
conﬂuence; Bamars sought to save and keep control over the great Irrawaddy
River, on which lowland Burma’s civilisation has depended for centuries. Both
Kachin and lowland Burmese opponents saw the Dam as existentially threa-
tening the nation. In 2011, snowballing anti-dam resistance led Burma’s
President Thein Sein to one-sidedly suspend the dam’s construction, surpris-
ing both Chinese, Burmese, and worldwide observers and causing much
speculation, as explored below.
Many observers, scholars, and journalists have asked why this unexpected
inter-national scandal happened. The President may have considered several
78 L. KIIK
domestic and international factors together. My other article (Kiik 2020)
reviews both the diﬀerent explanations and the academic literature on
Myitsone Dam – and concludes that the President’s decision was made
possible ﬁrstly by the growing inter-ethnic resistance. Below, throughout this
article, I build on and refer to this diverse research literature on the Myitsone
anti-dam resistance and inter-national controversy (KDNG 2007; 2009;
Kempel 2012; Min Zin 2012; Sun 2012; Hkawn Ja Aung 2014; Kirchherr,
Disselhoﬀ, and Charles 2016; TNI 2016; Chan 2017; Foran et al. 2017; Jones
and Zou 2017; Su Mon Thazin Aung 2017; Tang-Lee 2017; Kirchherr 2018;
Hedström 2019; Teera-Hong 2019). This article contributes to this literature
by showing how the ongoing Myitsone controversy emerges partly from all
sides suspecting and speculating on hidden inter-national power dynamics
Chinese (And Western) Speculation: China–US Rivalry
Until the 2011 Myitsone Dam suspension, Beijing oﬃcials assumed that the
Burmese regime would remain loyal to China (Sun 2012). Therefore, after the
unilateral suspension stunned Chinese companies and government, Chinese
media and policy circles saw a wave of post-mortem analysis and advocacy.
Various Chinese authors explored ‘Myitsone lessons’ for China’s Eurasian
infrastructure giga-project, the Belt and Road Initiative. One major theme
was conspiracy theories. Since the suspension, Chinese dam company leaders,
government oﬃcials, and pro-regime journalists and scholars have routinely
insinuated a Western or Japanese conspiracy, providing no evidence or spe-
ciﬁcs (see Kiik 2016b; TNI 2016). Reading such conspiratorial narratives,
I noticed that they usually refer to one speciﬁc sentence.
Namely, as the Myitsone suspension made worldwide headlines, a leading
Western newspaper published a short online article titled ‘WikiLeaks cables:
Americans funded groups that stalled Burma dam project’ (The Guardian 2011).
The article reports on a sentence in one of the few hundred thousand United
States’ diplomatic cables, which the WikiLeaks cyber-hackers had published
a year before. This cable, from early 2010, is the US Rangoon embassy head
reporting on ‘grassroots opposition to Chinese-backed dam in northern Burma.’
Towards the cable’s end, the diplomat expresses surprise and notes:
An unusual aspect of this case is the role grassroots organizations have played in
opposing the dam, which speaks to the growing strength of civil society groups in
Kachin State, including recipients of Embassy small grants.
The online newspaper article inspired other media publications, too, to
broadcast this quoted sentence and insinuate that US funding may help
explain the Myitsone Dam’s sudden suspension, popular anti-dam resis-
tance, and Burma’s ‘betrayal’ of China. The article was also immediately
quoted in the widely-read online encyclopaedia Wikipedia (2011), both in
the article on ‘Myitsone Dam’ and, notably, on ‘CIA activities in Myanmar.’
In the following years, journalists and international-relations scholars have
referenced this leaked cable sentence, sometimes as if evidence of broad ‘US
funding of anti-dam activities.’ The sentence has been cited, to discuss, with
varying degrees of evidence and accuracy, possible hidden Western involve-
ment or the Burmese government’s possible foreign policy calculations
(Dossi 2015; Han 2019; Lintner 2015; Sun 2012). Most such discussions
have neglected that the cable message refers only to Kachin civil society,
not to the lowland Burmese anti-dam campaign, and only to a small grant
programme, not large-scale or ‘broad’ funding. They have also neglected the
cable’s main message – which is that Kachin civil society was growing strong
and opposed a large dam project.
Instead, the cable came to strengthen speculations, whereby the US embassy
helped organise Kachin and Burmese widespread resistance against the mega-
project to hurt China and whereby the Burmese government suspended the
project to please the US government. Supposedly, Burma’s new post-junta
government was thus signalling that Burma is not China’s client state and
wants to improve relations with the West, ASEAN, and other countries.
Such stories of geopolitical turf-war can become self-fulﬁling prophesy: the
more that Western commentators publicised insinuations that the US drove
the Kachin and Burmese opposition against the Dam, the more did the
Chinese dam proponents ﬁnd conﬁrmation for their own conspiracy theories.
Sun (2012), too, observes that these WikiLeaks-based reports ‘reinforced
China’s perception that Western eﬀorts to sabotage Chinese projects and
alienate China–Myanmar relations are primarily motivated by the geopolitical
goal of curbing Chinese inﬂuence.’
The 2013 reportage on Myitsone Dam by a Communist Party-run energy
industry publication exempliﬁes how the Chinese dam proponents drew conﬁr-
mation from Western media. It quotes a Myitsone project’s top leader who says
that he read from Western media that the Burmese government shelved the dam
construction ‘to cater to the United States’ (S. Wang 2013). The Chinese-language
article dismisses Kachin and Burmese opposition. This is my direct translation:
It was not only the Kachin local armed forces, but the voice of NGOs opposing Myitsone
was also growing. [The Myitsone dam project’s] general manager Li Guanghua
recounted to the journalist that, as early as the initial construction phase of the project,
there had been NGO activities in the local area.
As for where these NGOs came from and who funded them, there was not much
Only later, the British “Guardian” website revealed a cable, signed in early 2011 by [then
US embassy head], indicating that the American Embassy in Burma had through “small
80 L. KIIK
funds” supported civil-society organisations that opposed constructing the Myitsone
Since the suspension, Chinese pro-dam discourse has habitually claimed
Western conspiracy, most prominently in Chinese, Hong Kong, Burmese,
and other news media. Elsewhere, TNI (2016) and I (Kiik 2016b) review this
public discourse at greater length. For example, a Chinese regime tabloid
(Global Times 2016) cited the embassy cable to argue that ‘manipulation of
the Western media’ led people in Burma to think that Beijing is exploiting the
country’s resources. Another Chinese newspaper insinuated US sabotage by
complementing references to the cable with an accusation that some Burmese
anti-dam protesters who marched from Yangon to Myitsone were paid ‘5000
kyat per day’ and did not even know ‘what Myitsone is’ (Fan 2015).
China’s government oﬃcials and scholars, too, sometimes insinuate or
claim conspiracy. For example, as recently as in 2019, China’s ambassador
told Burmese media at his ﬁnal outgoing press conference that behind
Burmese opposition to Myitsone Dam are ‘some forces backed by foreign
countries’ that seek to damage China–Burma relations (Nan Lwin 2019). An
inﬂuential Chinese pro-regime international-aﬀairs professor (Y. Wang 2015)
writes in his book on the Belt and Road Initiative:
Many Western NGOs interfered with Chinese projects in developing countries, and the
most typical case is the Myitsone Dam. [. . .] [Western NGOs] have a knack for mobiliz-
ing people, and are good at organizing rallies and protests.
Assessing These Speculations
During ﬁeldwork, I asked several Kachin and Bamar persons who led resistance
to Myitsone Dam to comment on the claim that Western powers had paid and
instigated them. They expressed shock, anger, and amusement. For example,
one elderly Bamar conservationist shrugged the claim oﬀ as a strategic lie:
No! That’s China’s typical strategy – they make accusations. Ha-ha. I like USA, but I am
not a US agent. This is 100% wrong. Nobody told me to campaign against Myitsone
Dam. It was a people’s movement, led by a tiny group of us.
Importantly, the quoted US Embassy cable does not actually prove Western
proactivity in the Myitsone resistance. Burma’s diverse anti-junta activists
have for decades sought out available funding and technical support to pursue
their goals, including sometimes by applying for embassy or NGO grants (Kiik
2016b; Tang-Lee 2017). They do not consequently follow foreign marching
orders. Instead, throughout my ten years of engagement with Kachin society,
including ethnographic ﬁeldwork and everyday conversations with various
actors involved, I have observed how deeply Kachin activists are motivated by
their own ethnic nationalism. I will show so below, when discussing Kachin
and Burmese narratives on Myitsone Dam.
The supposed ‘US funding of anti-dam activities’ refers to only one
small grant for one project, which a Kachin activist group once applied
for. Using this case to generalise about anti-dam activities erases the
decade-long history of diverse local-village, Kachin, and later lowland
Burmese anti-dam resistance. It also belittles the many local-village,
Kachin, and Burmese persons who led or joined this decade-long anti-
dam resistance and followed their own histories, goals, and decisions, as
we will see below. Most people involved in this anti-dam activism got no
outside support or funding. Even the person who applied for the much-
cited small grant told me how their group nonetheless struggled ﬁnan-
cially. Moreover, as a Bamar leading activist emphasised, many people
risked their safety under Burma’s military-state repression: ‘The people
coming to our anti-dam events, the journalists reporting on Myitsone, the
celebrities signing our petition – everyone was taking a risk, but wanted to
participate.’ Most international civil society shied away from this popular
anti-dam outcry, due to the danger of Burmese regime repression (Kempel
2012, 16; Kirchherr 2018, 173). The Myitsone case does not exemplify the
US, Japanese, or other governments trying to contain Beijing, because it
lacks any evidence for those governments’ proactivity, rather revealing
their general disinterest.
Instead, to understand the Chinese conspiratorial narratives about the
Myitsone controversy, we need to consider contemporary China’s state-
nationalist and popular worldviews. Firstly, as the Soviet Union did,
Beijing’s oﬃcial rhetoric routinely insinuates that any anti-regime resis-
tance stems from evil foreign forces manipulating the supposedly naïve
masses. Most recently, Beijing issued such statements on the 2019–20
Hong Kong mass protests. Secondly, a key Chinese nationalist narrative
argues that, during the last few centuries, the West has humiliated China,
especially during the Opium Wars (Callahan 2009). In China’s public
discussions about the Myitsone suspension, the event sometimes became
‘yet another Western humiliation’ of China (Kiik 2016b). Thus, the
Myitsone conﬂict became about national self-determination not only for
many Kachin and Burmese people, but also for some Chinese nationalists.
Thirdly, another widespread assumption in contemporary Chinese dis-
course is that people worldwide would want to emulate the rapid economic
improvement that China has experienced since the 1980s. Analysing the
Myitsone controversy, Sun (2012) observes that the Chinese government
‘fails to understand or accept’ ‘non-mercantilist approaches toward economic
and social development’, especially in poor countries, and thus assumes that
any opposition to China in such poor countries as Burma must be ‘non-
indigenous, instigated by hostile Western forces.’
82 L. KIIK
Some Chinese analysts have called for abandoning such conspiratorial
explanations. Chinese journalists, advisors, and scholars have published cri-
tical reﬂections on why the Myitsone dam companies’ state-centric and brib-
ing approach failed (see TNI 2016; Kiik 2016b). For example, a Chinese
commerce-ministry expert, Jiang (2015, 14–16), denounces that, despite ‘the
tremendous economic, political and diplomatic costs of the suspension of the
Myitsone Dam project, no one in China was held responsible.’ Instead, she
notes, some Chinese analysts and the project’s leading hydropower company
have promoted ‘broad conspiracy theories,’ which ‘conceal the internal pro-
blems of how Chinese enterprises have operated.’
Indeed, talk of inter-national conspiracy serves important purposes. For the
Chinese companies, government, and dam proponents, it helps deﬂect ques-
tions about the hydroelectricity project’s ﬂaws, legitimacy, and politics. It helps
ignore the long-term Kachin and Burmese resistance and the project’s clash
against Kachin and Burmese nationalisms (Kiik 2016b). For Western and
other media companies, in contrast, such tales about US–China geopolitical
conspiracy and turf-war sell better than tales about Burma’s contexts and
actors. Consequently, worldwide media and academia tend to cover the
Myitsone Dam’s ‘China spectacle’ more than the Kachin, Burmese, or local
village anti-dam struggles, northern Burma’s war, war crimes, and humanitar-
ian crisis, or Burma’s other forcibly proceeding mega-dams, such as Hatgyi
and Mongton (Tasang).
Overstressing big geopolitics or natural-resource economics around the
Myitsone issue has contributed to misunderstanding the current Kachin war.
Since 2011, journalistic and scholarly accounts have mentioned the Myitsone
Dam, when blaming Chinese companies’ resource grabbing or China–US
rivalry for restarting the Kachin war. Such insinuations come amid wider
misrepresentations whereby this war is merely over jade and other natural
resources. For example, Christensen et al (2019) neglect most Burma and
Kachin studies research, but claim to explain the whole war through ﬂawed
data on jade and battles (see Tony Neil’s forthcoming publication). All such
misrepresentations neglect Burma’s history of decades-long ethno-political
wars, the Burmese military’s post-2008 countrywide counterinsurgency push,
and the countless involved people’s own visions and decisions (Brenner 2015;
Sadan 2016, 2013). They also reproduce state-centric prejudice against such
political actors as the Kachin Independence Organization (Dean 2005). Thus
too, such analyses of the Myitsone controversy, which highlight only the
Burmese president’s possible motives for suspending the dam’s construction,
assume sovereign countries and central governments as the default units of
politics and analysis, underestimating other actors’ capacity and impact.
However, overly geopolitical interpretation of the Myitsone issue misrepre-
sents not only the local-village, Kachin, and lowland Burmese popular anti-dam
resistance, but also the central Burmese government in Naypyitaw. Namely,
Burma’s president did not need to risk Beijing’s revenge by halting this mega-
project, in order to ‘cater to the US’ – not least because all Western countries had
by then already begun normalising relations with and easing sanctions on
Burma, in response to the government’s unprecedented democratising moves,
such as freeing many political prisoners and abolishing pre-publication censor-
ship (Chan 2017). Thus, Chan (2017) asks rhetorically: ‘why should Naypyitaw
risk paying a stupendous amount of compensation just to impress the West?’
Yeophantong (2016, 184) concludes similarly: ‘Although some observers have
interpreted Thein Sein’s move as indicating Myanmar’s desire to diversify away
from China, such accounts overlook the important role played by anti-dam
protestors and their sympathizers within the Myanmar government.’ Indeed,
geopolitical interpretation tends to assume that the Burmese regime is consistent
and well-planned. It sidesteps the fact that the Myitsone anti-dam movement
arose and grew independently from the regime and its plans – and, moreover,
impacted the president’s decision. For example, advisors persuaded the presi-
dent by forwarding him anti-dam messages (Kempel 2012; Yeophantong 2016;
Su Mon Thazin Aung 2017; Foran et al. 2017).
Moreover, overly geopolitical interpretation downplays the president’s
domestic motives, conﬁrmed by later research. For example, then-
government’s ministers and staﬀ have in later interviews indicated that the
government’s ‘reformist’ faction used the Myitsone public outcry to consoli-
date their power and legitimacy against a ‘hardliner’ faction that supported the
dam (Su Mon Thazin Aung 2017). Partly, the president likely sought to
prevent a popular anti-dam uprising from disrupting the whole military-
mandated reform process. This is also asserted by his then-spokesperson, Ye
Htut, in a memoir published several years later (2019). Having interviewed the
former president, Ye Htut claims:
[President Thein Sein] was concerned that further protests in other parts of the country
would lead to a political crisis and derail his reform process. His decision was not based
on geopolitics or a strategic decision to move away from China. [. . .] Although the
decision was for purely domestic reasons, the West said it was a strategic foreign policy
decision. The government did not attempt to clarify the situation. The Chinese began to
feel that they were the only loser in Myanmar’s democratization process.
Having contested the Western and Chinese speculations about the Burmese
government’s foreign-policy strategies, Ye Htut next premiers his own geopo-
litical speculation about China. His account illustrates my critical discussion,
above, of those Bamar nationalist representations, which portray ethnic-
minority rebel movements as if simply created, controlled, and used by Beijing:
It is not a coincidence that following the suspension of the Myitsone Dam project and
improvements in relations with the West, new ethnic armed groups appeared in Northern
Myanmar and more heavily armed conﬂicts in Kachin and Northern Shan State occurred.
84 L. KIIK
Nor does it seem to be a coincidence that none of the ethnic armed groups along the
Chinese border agreed to join the Nationwide Ceaseﬁre Agreement three years later.
This quote begins to show that the Chinese and Western speculations about
Myitsone Dam were not alone, but had important counterparts among
Burmese own speculations. I will now turn to those.
Burmese Speculation: China’s Neo-colonialism
The Myitsone project has two radically diﬀerent environmental impact assess-
ment reports – a Burmese researchers’ report calls for cancelling the Myitsone
mega-dam, but a Chinese-written report praises the project (see Foran et al.
2017, 626–629; Kiik 2020). Amid Burma’s countrywide outcry against
Myitsone Dam in 2011, the damning Burmese-written report was anon-
ymously leaked to anti-dam activists. Seen as scientiﬁcally authoritative, the
report helped the activists convince Burmese publics and some government
oﬃcials that the dam’s ecological impacts would threaten the country’s
A few years later, I visited a Burmese researcher who participated in this
environmental survey. I asked: ‘Why did the Burmese and Chinese reports
reach opposite conclusions, even though you did ﬁeld research together?’
A retired government employee, but with a then-opposition icon Aung San
Suu Kyi’s photo on his wall, the researcher told me:
Because our Burmese feeling and their Chinese feeling are diﬀerent. We want to protect
our environment. But for the Chinese, this is not their environment. For example, our
report mentions that we should study the dam’s downstream impact, too. But the
Chinese company rejected this: ‘Not to mention in the report!’ So, the Chinese report
Image 1. “Rose protest” against Myitsone Dam. (Photographer: Naw Awng).
has no scientiﬁc analysis. Their report’s environmental impact claims are only their
When we did ﬁeld research together at Myitsone, I said to a Chinese professor: ‘Look,
this pagoda will be ﬂooded.’ He said: ‘Don’t worry! We will build a new one!’ So, I said:
‘You don’t know, this is our cultural heritage! You can’t feel like us.’ He didn’t answer.
We all saw the massive logging of Kachin forests. I asked the Chinese counterpart:
‘Forests are ﬂying to China – do you agree?’ He said nothing.
I am an old man – I participated in this environmental research not for myself. Not for
money. I did it for my country. Each person in our country has responsibility to save our
nature. Otherwise, nobody will survive.
Overall, lowland Burma’s 2009–2011 public movement against Myitsone Dam
spread so widely because Burmese activists, environmentalists, intellectuals,
journalists, artists, and others framed the dam as a national emergency. They
portrayed the Irrawaddy River – around which much of Burma’s history,
agriculture, and economy are built – as the country’s national lifeblood
under threat (Kempel 2012; Kiik 2016b; Kirchherr 2018; Kiik 2020). Various
campaigners told me about how a sense of patriotic duty fuelled this anti-dam
The public outcry also channelled widespread anger against Chinese ‘colo-
nialism.’ Popular Burmese complaints against China and Chinese people are
many: dominating Burma’s economy; plundering Burma’s forests, jade, gas,
and other resources; immorally supporting the junta; migrating illegally into
Burma; traﬃcking Burmese women to Chinese men; and dumping low-quality
and counterfeit products into Burma. As the public outcry against Myitsone
Dam culminated towards September 2011, Burmese print media published
warnings about how China’s rising inﬂuence threatens Burma’s sovereignty.
In my interviews, Bamar anti-dam campaigners often decried that China
dominates and exploits Burma.
Some campaigners warned the Burmese public that the Myitsone project
helps China gradually ‘colonise’ Burma’s territory. For example, one concern
was whether Beijing could dominate Burma’s future by operating such a giant
dam that could control and interrupt the Irrawaddy River’s ﬂow downstream.
Some feared that the dam companies will settle thousands of Chinese workers
in the project area to build and later maintaining the dam. A Bamar scientist
detailed such fears:
Before, China was poor. But now, they come with bags of money and buy all our land.
Most people in their heart . . . they hate what the Chinese are doing. China’s Shwe oil-and
-gas pipeline divides Myanmar’s territory into two. People worry that the northern part,
including Mandalay, will be in China’s hand. If Myitsone Dam is constructed, many
workers from China will reside there. That may be China’s plan: Little-by-little, little-by-
little . . . and ﬁnally, they will take over Upper Myanmar.
Another senior environmentalist generalised:
86 L. KIIK
China has changed. Their GDP is close to America. Now they only care about getting
rich, not about people! Once they said ‘colonist, colonist!’ to the British. Now, they
became the new colonists.
However, exemplifying broader tendencies in nationalist thinking, when
Burmese or other observers speculate on Chinese geopolitical strategies, they
neglect diﬀerentiating between distinct Chinese actors. Namely, the dam
company, Beijing central government, Yunnan Province government, and
others are all diﬀerent actors with diﬀerent, sometimes competing interests
(Hameiri, Jones, and Zou 2019; Sun 2017). The Myitsone project’s leading
state-owned dam company deﬁed the Chinese fragmented party-state’s own
regulations, while seeking proﬁt, eventually damaging Beijing’s diplomacy in
Burma (Jones and Zou 2017). Thus, the company was not a straightforward
tool of Beijing’s geopolitics. Narratives that describe Myitsone Dam as China’s
‘colonization’ of Burma resonate with those Western, Indian, and other spec-
ulations, discussed above, which approach Burma as a mere greater-power
The Myitsone mega-project resonated with Burmese nationalist fears of
besiegement – by former British colonists, by Chinese, Muslims, and other
‘outsiders.’ Using such fears, the Burmese military-government has long
justiﬁed itself and diverted public anger from itself. Throughout the
Myitsone project’s active years, the Chinese corporations did act violently,
recklessly, and undemocratically, but the Burmese military and Burmese
companies often did so even more directly – for example, by violently mal-
treating Myitsone residents. However, across the world, Chinese dam compa-
nies tend to get blamed for their domestic partners’ misconduct (Kirchherr,
Disselhoﬀ, and Charles 2016). Discussing Burma’s Myitsone anti-dam move-
ment, Lamb and Dao (2017 395, 409) ‘caution against reinforcing xenophobic
narratives about China’ and overlooking both ‘more foundational concerns
regarding participation, environmental governance, and hydropower devel-
opment.’ Indeed, Burmese public anger focusing against China unintention-
ally protects the repressive Burmese elites who partnered in and proﬁted from
the Myitsone mega-project, such as the top junta leaders or the junta-allied
Burmese narcotics cartel’s conglomerate, Asia World. Instead, as some
Burmese activists themselves worried, the anti-dam movement may have
risked prompting violence against Burma’s ethnic Chinese people (Min Zin
2012; Kiik 2020).
Despite some Burmese claims about Chinese takeover being perhaps overly
conspiratorial, they do reﬂect widespread concerns and experiences. For
example, both lowland Burmese and Kachin critics can point to the
Myitsone project as part of a much broader exploitative natural-resource
economy, dominated by Chinese companies. A Bamar businessman argued,
accordingly, ‘China is really stealing Burma’s resources, so it is not some crazy
conspiracy theory.’ Moreover, the dam project’s leaders themselves caused
Burmese public distrust by neither publishing the project contracts nor asses-
sing the dams’ downstream eﬀects. Yet, again, Chinese companies view such
business projects not as ‘colonising’ Burma, but rather as seeking proﬁt and
Such tension between analysing the mega-project through either eco-
nomic motives or inter-national relations shaped the Myitsone controversy
throughout. This tension emerged ﬁrst in the mid-2000s, when the Chinese
companies arrived in Burma’s Kachin State and encountered ethnic Kachin
Kachin Speculation: Destroying Our Nation
Throughout ﬁeldwork, I found that nationalistic Kachin persons usually treat
resource-extraction projects, such as the Myitsone Dam, as inter-national – or,
geopolitical – aﬀairs between the equal nations of ‘the Kachins,’ ‘the Chinese,’
and ‘the Bamars.’ One reason why this inter-national analysis shaped the
Myitsone controversy was the dam construction’s location – the famous
Myitsone conﬂuence area, cherished as a Kachin national landmark and
cultural heartland, through which ancient ancestors once migrated in
Kachin oral histories. As Kachin anti-dam resistance spread during the
2000s, this inter-national analysis peaked in a widespread phrase, which
imagines the Kachin nation addressing the Chinese nation: ‘If we would
destroy your Great Wall, how would you feel?!’ I heard variations of this
statement in several interviews. The phrase was also published in a Kachin
NGO’s environmental magazine where people sent in articles, poems, and
caricatures, including against Myitsone Dam. Bamar activists used this phrase,
too – showing how both Kachin and Bamar actors saw the Myitsone issue as
partly about inter-national dignity. Later, in 2010–2011, Kachin activists
cultivated lowland Burmese people’s empathy by discussing the conﬂuence
as Kachin heritage and comparing it to Burmese national symbols – the
ancient Bagan temples and Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda (Kiik 2020). Many
Kachins saw outsiders reshaping the Myitsone area as an attack on Kachin
national dignity, causing much anger against China. For example, in July 2011,
amidst a heated anti-dam discussion at a Kachin youth training, one young
person complained to me: ‘In order for Shanghai to get electricity, our history
In Kachin popular analysis, then, Myitsone Dam symbolises how their
nation’s future is squeezed between more powerful Burmese and Chinese
forces. Since the dam project’s early stages in the mid-2000s, local village
residents, underground Kachin activists, church leaders, and exile media
gradually built popular resistance, seeking to defend the beloved conﬂuence
area from being ﬂooded and its people from being displaced (KDNG 2007;
88 L. KIIK
2009; Hkawn Ja Aung 2014; Teera-Hong 2019). Kachin dam opponents
interpreted the mega-project as a Kachin national emergency within
a broader complex of large-scale natural-resource grabbing across their home-
land (Kiik 2016a; Kiik 2020). They saw insult to Kachin national dignity,
especially because Kachin publics were generally not consulted, while thou-
sands of Kachin villagers were to be forcibly displaced and the beneﬁts would
mostly go to China and the reviled Burmese junta. In terms of existential
threat, if not deliberate conspiracy, people from among both Kachins and the
region’s various other ethnic groups feared most that an earthquake might
break the mega-dam and ﬂood the downstream Kachin State capital
Myitkyina, killing a few hundred thousand people.
Some saw Myitsone Dam as an example of how the Burmese military is
planning to conquer Kachin ethno-national resistance. In July 2011 – as
Kachin society reeled from renewed civil war and only a few months before
the Myitsone project was suspended – an inﬂuential church leader sum-
marised the two main reasons why such mega-projects as Myitsone Dam are
unacceptable. First, the projects were started without negotiating with local
people. Second, the Burmese regime uses these projects ‘to destroy’ non-
Bamar homelands. ‘If this dam breaks and ﬂoods, it is we who suﬀer.’
Consequently, when in 2011 the Burmese president suspended – rather than
fully stopped – the Dam’s construction, many Kachin actors remained scep-
tical. Paralleling the Chinese and other conspiratorial narratives about
Western meddling, these Kachins had their own distrustful analyses of the
president’s decision: Bamar generals were yet again deceiving and scheming
Various Kachin activists and allied foreign researchers have long argued
that the large-scale resource extraction activities across Burma’s highlands
belong amidst Burmese military-state strategies for expanding its controlled
territory and squeezing out the insurgent military-states (Bryant 1997; Woods
2011; discussed in Kiik 2016a). In the Myitsone case, for example, some
Kachin activists viewed the Dam’s massive reservoir as a Burmese military
plan to disrupt the Kachin Independence Organisation’s territorial control
(Kiik 2020). Woods (2018) mentions the Myitsone Dam as a prime example of
how the Burmese military-state gives vast land and resource concessions in
rebel-administrated territories to domestic and foreign investors, ‘in part
achieving counterinsurgency aims.’ An exile activist speculated:
The Burmese government has a plan: they make many dam projects in the Kachin area,
especially KIO area. In those dams’ name, they do military deployments. The KIO
cannot easily stop this, because the investment is from China – and the KIO’s head-
quarters rely on the Chinese border. This is a militarily, politically, economically
comprehensive strategy: they want to eliminate the Kachin army by using Kachin natural
Kachin dam opponents also scrutinised Beijing’s possible strategies. For
example, in 2013, a KIO-area educator told me that ‘a Chinese company
initiated this new war to remove the KIO – because they want free access for
building the Myitsone project and a commercial route to India.’ Also in 2013,
I met a senior Kachin political activist who helped lead the 2000s’ anti-dam
activities, while taking refuge in exile. With a soft voice, the activist voiced
Initially, the Chinese company contacted only the military dictatorship. That is very
wrong, because the Kachin people were not notiﬁed – not until the Chinese already
arrived to work at Myitsone. But Kachins must preserve Myitsone for our future. We
oppose this Chinese company impacting and controlling our vital Myitsone area.
We have already experienced Chinese logging – they cut and transport everything to
China, including teak. China also controls the jade mining, while we become poorer and
poorer, and are left to using drugs. So many people have died from drugs. And now, the
Chinese would build and control seven dams.
They plan on controlling and occupying. Now, the Chinese government is interested in
precious minerals in northern Kachinland. Our duty is to protect – to prevent the
occupation of our land!
For such people, preventing Myitsone Dam means preventing the homeland
from becoming a resource-extraction frontier for other nations. Thus, this
activist continued laying out a national emergency: Many lowland Burmese
people are migrating to Kachin State – usually to seek livelihoods within its
natural-resource economy – turning Kachins into an ever-smaller minority in
their claimed homeland. Like the Burmese anti-dam activists above, Kachin
opponents worried that the Myitsone project would bring tens of thousands of
Chinese workers to settle for years to build and maintain the dams, thus
overwhelming and ‘morally corrupting’ local society, especially by seeking
women for sex.
Many Kachin people, however, did not view the Myitsone Dam project as
a speciﬁcally anti-Kachin scheme. Sometimes, people suggested to me that the
Dam is more a Chinese agenda, where Burmese leaders are merely pursuing
money. For example, one youth recalled sceptically:
Only after the radio – BBC, VOA, RFA – broadcasted about the Dam, did the pastors
“This is a Burmese plan – they want to remove our Kachin people completely from
Kachin State! We Kachins are forced to relocate from the riverside. And the dam is on an
earthquake line, it could be damaged any time. People would die. If they build the dam,
Chinese will settle in our Kachin country, and our tradition and culture will disappear.”
But I don’t think they are planning to destroy our Kachin people. It’s just Chinese and
Burmese business. If they ﬁnish the dam, they can earn billions. And the Chinese know
how to build a strong dam, which won’t break easily. The activists are overthinking this.
90 L. KIIK
Despite some claims about anti-Kachin strategies being perhaps overly con-
spiratorial, they do stem from decades of experience and observation. Kachins
have experienced decades of the Burmese military’s brutal counterinsurgency
tactics and widespread military-state repression. Thus, my previous
publication (Kiik 2016a) discusses Kachin popular analyses whereby the
Burmese military is destroying the Kachin nation through various hidden
strategies, but also reﬂects on some logical and empirical weaknesses in
these popular analyses, such as overestimating the military-state’s coherence
and discounting the role of mere corruption. Many Kachins express despair
over their people’s poverty, narcotics addiction, war-driven displacement, land
and resource dispossession, and powerlessness. Kachin distrust towards
Burmese and Chinese projects emerges from such long-term experiences.
Moreover, the Myitsone project’s Chinese and Burmese leaders did indeed
sideline Kachins as a nation. In fact, the hydropower project’s public discourse
and pro-dam advocacy materials evaded all ethnic politics, never even men-
tioning the word ‘Kachin’ (Kiik 2016b). Thus, despite the Chinese companies
not having speciﬁcally anti-Kachin goals, their ‘anti-ethno-political silence’
did conﬁrm Kachin conspiratorial analysis whereby the Kachin nation was
being covertly erased.
Such erasure began originally at the dam construction area itself. I will now,
ﬁnally, turn to the heart of the Myitsone story.
Myitsone Speculation: They Do Not Count Us
One of the people who ﬁrst organised to resist damming at Myitsone – already
in 2003, amid ﬁrst preparatory studies for potential damming – was a church
elder from Tanghpre village next to the conﬂuence. Ten years later, I sit in his
living room. While his kids loudly and proudly prepare their English lessons,
he tells me how the villagers found out that the dam’s massive reservoir was to
ﬂood their homes, but no one had even consulted them, and how some
villagers thus began to resist (KDNG 2007; 2009; Hkawn Ja Aung 2014).
Violence and intimidation were used when resettling a few local villages into
two newly-built relocation villages. Tanghpre’s relocation village has no culti-
vable farmland, leaving people unable to grow their own food and relying on
the Chinese company’s rice donations. Drug abuse has spread and a powerful
company has grabbed local gold-panning sites. Thus, despite the project being
suspended, the church elder speaks of a broken community:
We, the villagers, feel we have become destroyed people. Even though the Myitsone
building is not going on, but for these villagers, it is hard in their heart, for their life, for
their religion. We have to spend maybe ﬁfteen years to re-establish the village as when we
were living in Tanghpre. People lost their livelihoods. If they do not give us rice, we can
do nothing. Here – is the new village. But this side – company covered; that side –
company covered; this mountain – government wildlife area. These villagers depend on
the river, stream, and mountain. Now, we can’t go anywhere: All stopped! How can these
people grow? This is the big, big problem they have given us.
He is both tragic and comic when talking about how the Chinese hydropower
company is, since the suspension, trying to befriend the villagers. Only after
their project became suspended did its leaders begin direct outreach to the
villagers. Yet, the church elder shows me his determination to resist, as he
pokes fun at the schmoozing of the Chinese company oﬃcials at the village:
Before the suspension, they never came to talk, even though they see us. That time, their
behaviour and mentality is: ‘We do not care about the villagers! We don’t need to talk
with you! We are boss. We have already talked with the government side. We have
But after Thein Sein announced suspension, next year, their behaviour changed. They
came to us and talked to us: ‘What do you need?’
And now in 2013, they changed even more. Now, what happens is – in the churches, we
make some concert, singing competition, and they come and see . . .
. . . He imitates the company representatives’ fake-sounding voices of enjoy-
ment: ‘Aa-aa-aah!’ And he keeps imitating their exaggeratedly friendly voices:
‘Oh, please, I request this song again, for me! 50,000 kyat [then ≈50 USD]!’
‘They come to church and listen to what we are doing, even though we do
not invite. They come and sit, and do . . . ’ – he claps his hands, as if excited,
and shouts ‘ha-ha-ha,’ twisting his mouth into a big smile. He shows me name-
cards – ‘Myitsone Management Department, Myitkyina Oﬃce,’ ‘Director,’
‘Deputy Director’ – and laughs: ‘And with these two, many people come.’
I giggle at his performance and ask: ‘Do you think they actually like the songs?’
He laughs again: ‘It is clear – if they love us truly, they will leave to China!
That’s just pretending.’
His determination to see the project leave is shared by many Kachin and
Burmese activists and numerous people, mentioned above, whom I met and
talked with. It was these people’s intentions, decisions, and world-making – in
a speciﬁc historical moment – which mobilised the anti-dam movement that
eventually grew remarkably widespread. This widespread resistance made the
president’s later decision to suspend Myitsone Dam’s construction even think-
able. Thus, any explanation of the Myitsone controversy must begin from
understanding this resistance, not from poorly evidenced stories of big
When I tell the Tanghpre church leader about the idea that a Western-led
geopolitical conspiracy created the local anti-dam resistance, he quips: ‘Really,
they think that?! They should come talk to me!’ To explain why the Chinese
companies still claim that Americans organised the resistance, he turns to the
reason why he thinks his village and his nation were ignored in the ﬁrst place,
when the dam construction began:
92 L. KIIK
It’s because they don’t care about the Kachin, right? The Chinese do not ‘count’ the
Kachin in their mind. They do not ‘count’ us. I know that. That’s why they call us
shantou [in Mandarin, ‘mountain-top’ – an imperial era Han-Chinese name for Kachin
people]. For the Chinese, we are just some shantou.
As he curiously gauges my reaction to his analysis, I think about how aware
people can be about their own invisibility. In my experience, most patriots of
Kachinland think that their homeland is the centre of the world – as do we all
about our own homes. This man understands, though, that his village and his
beloved nation are easily relegated to the footnotes of grand stories, principally
those about China and America wrestling for power at some oﬀ-the-beaten-
path place. He knows that his people are seen as shantou – a mountaintop,
a frontier. (This story was ﬁrst told in Kiik 2017.)
Despite all the above Chinese, Burmese, and Kachin nationalist and con-
spiratorial analyses often lacking evidence or showing bias, they show people
pondering their own nation’s vulnerability in a nation-to-nation power hier-
archy. One Kachin young person summarised a common Kachin nationalist/
geopolitical view, discussed above, telling me that ‘Myitsone Dam is about
Kachins, Chinese, Bamars – three sides’, and adding:
Do you see the problem? Who controls this? China. China controls Burma. Burma
controls us, Kachins. We have no power. We plead to USA for help, but American people
don’t know what’s happening here.
Speculation, Nationalism, and Resource Frontiers
Believing and talking inter-national conspiracy theories can work both to
criticise or to help resource-grabbing and authoritarian rule, and both to
encourage or to dismiss resistance. A story about big inter-national machina-
tions can work to erase a place and people – by representing them as merely an
ethnic, resource, or geopolitical frontier. Lesser-known places and people are
especially easily turned into ‘frontier nations’ that attract outsiders’ geopoli-
tical gossip about being the puppets of this or that great power, because those
places’ voices struggle to reach far enough worldwide to contest the story.
Then again, such marginalised people have their own inter-national specula-
tions. Those make their homeland globally central – by claiming that this land
is special and thus at a vast power struggle’s heart.
Indeed, transnational resource extraction, such as Myitsone Dam, can
catapult oﬀ-the-beaten-path places and people’s livelihood struggles onto the
spectacular stage of speculations about great-power rivalries. As the Myitsone
church elder did above, people of such places then travel mentally across scales
to imagine the distant power-holders that try to shape their home’s future.
Nationalist thinking especially tends to suspect that outside forces are
plotting to overpower ‘specially our nation.’ As discussed above, nationalists
deﬁne one’s homeland as the world’s centre, not as a mere edge for somewhere
else, and view nations – not individuals, governments, the rich, the poor,
religions, spirits, or others – as the key actors in worldwide aﬀairs. As such,
nationalist analysis, which sees such controversies as Myitsone Dam through
an ‘inter-national’ lens, tends to lump together various distinct actors within
a nation. Such nationalist logic informed all the above Chinese, Kachin, and
Burmese analysis of geopolitics and conspiracy.
For both many Kachins and many lowland Burmese people, preventing
Myitsone Dam meant preventing the homeland from becoming a resource
frontier for other, more powerful nations. The fears of Burmese nationalists
towards China’s plans for dominating Burma resembled the Kachin national-
ists’ fears of Burmese military plans to crush the Kachin nation. Both Kachin
and Bamar opponents saw Myitsone Dam as merely one prominent example
within their homeland’s broader exploitative resource economy, dominated by
Chinese companies. While some Kachin and Burmese speculations about
colonisation and conspiracy around Myitsone Dam lacked evidence or showed
bias, they reﬂected broader realities and many people’s long-term experiences
In contrast, those Chinese and Western speculations, whereby Western
governments secretly derailed the Myitsone project, oﬀered no evidence and
neglected the evidence of a decade-long history of local-village, Kachin, and
Burmese anti-dam resistance. Moreover, their insinuations veered into dis-
missing less powerful people’s capacity, intelligence, and political vision. The
Chinese companies, government, and dam proponents used claims of con-
spiracy to evade the project’s ﬂaws and to ignore the popular resistance.
However, as the Burmese and Kachin speculations did, these Chinese spec-
ulations resonated also with broader worldviews and nationalism. Chinese
nationalists often explain inter-national setbacks through the hidden machi-
nations of US, Japanese, and other powerful governments. Because Beijing had
assumed that the Burmese military-state is a reliable smaller ally, it considered
an outside-led conspiracy more likely. In the Myitsone Dam case, thus, the
Chinese, Kachin, and Burmese speculations all expressed similar fears of inter-
national conspiracy, despite these nations varying so much in size and
On one hand, then, this article contributed to the ethnographic literature in
social anthropology, human geography, and beyond, which shows how ‘sub-
altern’ conspiracy theories can sometimes express real structural inequity and
injustice. On the other hand, more uniquely, this article used ethnographic
methods to challenge an elite-driven and globally circulating conspiracy the-
ory about marginalised people – by highlighting those disregarded people’s
The article also highlighted the challenges of writing ethnographically
about how people – whether the more powerful or the less powerful –
94 L. KIIK
speculate on secret hostile schemes. Such speculations have spread alongside
violence, misunderstanding, hate, and repression in Burma and beyond.
Ethnographic research, critical geopolitics, and mainstream international
relations all face the analytical, political, and ethical challenge of both con-
textualising and evaluating any people’s claim that someone plots against
The author is grateful for the support, advice, and insight of friends and colleagues from
Myitsone, Myitkyina, Yangon, Tallinn, Oxford, and elsewhere, who made this article possible.
This article won the Burma Studies Foundation’s 2020 Sarah M. Bekker Burma Essay Prize.
Laur Kiik http://orcid.org/0000-0003-2552-8971
Aistrope, T., and R. Bleiker. 2018. Conspiracy and foreign policy. Security Dialogue 49
Barbesgaard, M. Forthcoming. Landscapes of dispossession: Multiscalar resource frontiers in
northern Tanintharyi, Myanmar. Geopolitics.
Boyer, D. 2006. Conspiracy, history, and therapy at a Berlin Stammtisch. American Ethnologist
33 (3):327–39. doi:10.1525/ae.2006.33.3.327.
Brenner, D. 2015. Ashes of co-optation: From Armed group fragmentation to the rebuilding of
popular insurgency in Myanmar. Conict, Security & Development 15 (4):337–58.
Bryant, R. L. 1997. The political ecology of forestry in Burma 1824–1994. London: Hurst &
Callahan, W. A. 2009. China: The pessoptimist nation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Chan, D. S. W. 2017. Asymmetric bargaining between Myanmar and China in the Myitsone
dam controversy: Social opposition akin to David’s stone against Goliath. The Paciﬁc Review
30 (5):674–91. doi:10.1080/09512748.2017.1293714.
Cheesman, N. 2017. Introduction: Interpreting communal violence in Myanmar. Journal of
Contemporary Asia 47 (3):335–52. doi:10.1080/00472336.2017.1305121.
Christensen, D., M. Nguyen, and R. Sexton. 2019. Strategic Violence during democratization:
Evidence from Myanmar. World Politics 71(2):332–66.
Dean, K. 2005. Spaces and territorialities on the Sino–Burmese boundary: China, Burma and
the Kachin. Political Geography 24 (7):808–30. doi:10.1016/j.polgeo.2005.06.004.
Dean, K. 2011. Spaces, territorialities and ethnography on the Thai-, Sino- and Indo-Myanmar
Boundaries. In Ashgate research companion to border studies, ed. D. Wastl-Walter, 219–44.
Farnham: Ashgate Publishing.
Dittmer, J., and K. Dodds. 2008. Popular geopolitics past and future: Fandom, identities and
audiences. Geopolitics 13 (3):437–57. doi:10.1080/14650040802203687.
Dossi, S. 2015. Regime change and foreign policy: Explaining the ﬂuctuations in Myanmar’s
economic cooperation with China. European Journal of East Asian Studies 14 (1):98–123.
Fan, S. 2015. 密松水电站搁置四年, 揭秘究竟谁在反对这个项目. The Paper
November 8. https://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_1394261 .
Faxon, H. O. Forthcoming. After the rice frontier: Producing state and ethnic territory in
northwest Myanmar. Geopolitics.
Fink, C. 2018. Dangerous speech, anti-Muslim violence, and Facebook in Myanmar. Journal of
International Aairs 71 (1.5):43–52.
Foran, T., L. Kiik, S. Hatt, D. Fullbrook, A. Dawkins, S. Walker, and Y. Chen. 2017. Large
hydropower and legitimacy: A policy regime analysis, applied to Myanmar. Energy Policy
Global Times. 2016. Pragmatism raises hope for Myitsone Dam. August 18, 2016. http://www.
Gravers, M. 1999. Nationalism as political paranoia in Burma: An essay on the historical
practice of power. Revised and expanded. Richmond: Curzon Press.
Hameiri, S., L. Jones, and Y. Zou. 2019. The development-insecurity nexus in China’s near-
abroad: Rethinking cross-border economic integration in an era of state transformation.
Journal of Contemporary Asia 49 (3):473–99. doi:10.1080/00472336.2018.1502802.
Han, E. 2019. Asymmetrical neighbors: Borderland state building between China and Southeast
Asia. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hedström, J. 2016. ‘Before I joined the army I was like a child’: Militarism and women’s rights
in Kachinland. In War and peace in the borderlands of Myanmar: The Kachin Ceaseﬁre,
1994–2011, ed. M. Sadan, 236–56. Copenhagen: NIAS Press.
Hedström, J. 2019. Myanmar in transition: China, conﬂict, and ceaseﬁre economies in Kachin
State. UI Paper, 4.
Hkawn Ja Aung. 2014. Social movement on Myitsone hydropower dam project in Kachin state,
Burma/Myanmar. MA thesis, Chulalongkorn University. http://cuir.car.chula. ac.th/handle/
Jiang, H. 2015. An evolving framework for outward investment: A Chinese approach to conict
sensitive business. Philadelphia: American Friends Service Committee (a modiﬁed transla-
tion of a 2013 book in Chinese). https://www.afsc.org/sites/default/ﬁles/documents/
Johnson-Schlee, S. 2019. Playing cards against the state: Precarious lives, conspiracy theories,
and the production of ‘irrational’ subjects. Geoforum 101 (May):174–81. doi:10.1016/j.
Jones, L. 2012. The Commonplace geopolitics of conspiracy. Geography Compass 6 (1): 44–59.
Jones, L., and Y. Zou. 2017. Rethinking the role of state-owned enterprises in China’s rise. New
Political Economy 22 (6):743–60. doi:10.1080/13563467.2017.1321625.
KDNG [Kachin Development Networking Group]. 2007. Damming the Irrawaddy. http://
KDNG [Kachin Development Networking Group]. 2009. Resisting the ﬂood: Communities
taking a stand against the imminent construction of Irrawaddy dams. https://kdng.org/
Kempel, S. [Anonymous]. 2012. We all love the Ayeyarwady: Case study on the Myitsone dam
advocacy campaign (Myanmar/Burma). Unpublished report.
Kiik, L. 2016a. Conspiracy, God’s plan and national emergency: Kachin popular analyses of the
ceaseﬁre era and its resource grabs. In War and peace in the borderlands of Myanmar: The
Kachin Ceaseﬁre, 1994–2011, ed. M. Sadan, 205–35. Copenhagen: NIAS Press.
96 L. KIIK
Kiik, L. 2016b. Nationalism and anti-ethno-politics: Why ‘Chinese development’ failed at
Myanmar’s Myitsone dam. Eurasian Geography and Economics 57 (3):374–402.
Kiik, L. 2017. “They Do Not Count Us”: Resisting the Myitsone Dam beyond China, the US,
and Big Geopolitics. Blog post. Tea Circle – A Forum for New Perspectives on Burma/
Myanmar. April 17. https://teacircleoxford.com/2017/04/17/they-do-not-count-us-resist
Kiik, L. 2020. Conﬂuences amid conﬂict: How resisting China’s Myitsone dam project linked
Kachin and Bamar nationalisms in war-torn Burma. Journal of Burma Studies 24 (2).
Kirchherr, J. 2018. Strategies of successful anti-dam movements: Evidence from Myanmar and
Thailand. Society & Natural Resources 31 (2):166–82. doi:10.1080/08941920.2017.1364455.
Kirchherr, J., T. Disselhoﬀ, and K. Charles. 2016. Safeguards, ﬁnancing, and employment in
Chinese infrastructure projects in Africa: The case of Ghana’s Bui Dam. Waterlines 35
Lamb, V., and N. Dao. 2017. Perceptions and practices of investment: China’s hydropower
investments in Vietnam and Myanmar. Canadian Journal of Development Studies/Revue
Canadienne D’études Du Développement 38 (3):395–413. doi:10.1080/
Lintner, B. 2015. Great Game East: India, China, and the struggle for Asia’s most volatile
frontier. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Marcus, G. E. 1999. Paranoia within reason: A casebook on conspiracy as explanation. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.
Mathur, N. 2015. “It’s a conspiracy theory and climate change”: Of beastly encounters and
cervine disappearances in Himalayan India. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 5
Min Zin. 2012. Burmese attitude toward Chinese: Portrayal of the Chinese in contemporary
cultural and media works. Journal of Current Southeast Asian Aairs 31 (1):115–31.
Nan Lwin. 2019. Foreign countries behind Myitsone dam opposition: Chinese ambassador. The
Irrawaddy, May 22, 2019.
O’Morchoe, F. Forthcoming. Teak & lead: Making borders, resources, and territory in colonial
Rakopoulos, T. 2018. Show me the money: Conspiracy theories and distant wealth. History and
Anthropology 29 (3):376–91. doi:10.1080/02757206.2018.1458723.
Sadan, M. 2013. Being and becoming Kachin: Histories beyond the state in the borderworlds of
Burma. Oxford: Oxford University Press (British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship
Sadan, M., ed. 2016. War and peace in the borderlands of Myanmar: The Kachin Ceaseﬁre, 1994-
2011. Copenhagen: NIAS Press.
Sakwa, R. 2012. Conspiracy narratives as a mode of engagement in international politics: The
case of the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. Russian Review 71 (4):581–609. doi:10.1111/j.1467-
Sarma, J., Faxon, H. O. and Roberts, K. Forthcoming. Introduction: Remaking the resource
frontier – Myanmar and beyond. Geopolitics.
Schissler, M. 2016. New technologies, established practices: Developing narratives of Muslim
threat in Myanmar. In Islam and the state in Myanmar: Muslim-Buddhist relations and the
politics of belonging, ed. M. Crouch, 211–33. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Selth, A. 2007. Burma, China and the myth of military bases. Asian Security 3 (3):279–307.
Silverstein, P. A. 2002. An excess of truth: Violence, conspiracy theorizing and the Algerian
Civil War. Anthropological Quarterly 75 (4):643–74. doi:10.1353/anq.2002.0068.
Skidmore, M. 2004. Karaoke fascism: Burma and the politics of fear. Philadelphia: University of
Sun, Y. 2012. China’s strategic misjudgement on Myanmar. Journal of Current Southeast Asian
Aairs 31 (1):73–96. doi:10.1177/186810341203100105.
Sun, Y. 2017. “China and Myanmar’s Peace Process.” United States Institute of Peace Special
Report. https://www.usip.org/publications/2017/03/china-and-myanmars-peace-process .
Su Mon Thazin Aung. 2017. Governing the transition: Policy coordination mechanisms in the
Myanmar core executive. 2011—2016. PhD thesis, University of Hong Kong.
Tang-Lee, D. 2017. Complex contestation of Chinese energy and resource investments in
Myanmar. In In China’s backyard: Policies and politics of Chinese resource investments in
Southeast Asia, ed. J. Morris-Jung, 204–28. Singapore: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
Teera-Hong, E. 2019. Imagining political futures in Kachinland: The struggle for self-determi-
nation through legal activism and indigenous media. PhD thesis, Cornell University.
The Guardian 2011. WikiLeaks cables: Americans funded groups that stalled Burma dam
project. September 30, 2011.
TNI [Transnational Institute]. 2016. China’s engagement in Myanmar: From Malacca dilemma
to transition dilemma. 19. Myanmar Policy Brieﬁng. https://www.tni.org/en/publication/
Wang, S. 2013. 近探密松.
(China Energy News), August 26. http://paper.people.
Wang, Y. 2015. 一带一路: 机遇与挑战. Beijing: Renmin Chubanshe.
West, H. G., and T. Sanders. 2003. Transparency and conspiracy: Ethnographies of suspicion in
the new world order. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Wikipedia. 2011. Myitsone Dam. Article edit recorded at: en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=
Woods, K. 2011. Ceaseﬁre capitalism: Military–private partnerships, resource concessions and
military–state building in the Burma–China Borderlands. Journal of Peasant Studies 38
Woods, K. 2018. The conﬂict resource economy and pathways to peace in Burma. 144. United
States Institute of Peace Peaceworks Report.
Wouter, J. Forthcoming. Neoliberal capitalism and ethno-territoriality in highland northeast
India: Resource-extraction, capitalist desires and ethnic closure. Geopolitics.
Yeophantong, P. 2016. China’s hydropower expansion and inﬂuence over environmental
governance in Mainland Southeast Asia. In Rising China’s inuence in developing Asia, ed.
E. Goh, 174–92. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ye Htut. 2019. Myanmar’s political transition and lost opportunities (2010—2016). Singapore:
ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
98 L. KIIK