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Inter-National Conspiracy? Speculating on the Myitsone Dam Controversy in China, Burma, Kachin, and a Displaced Village


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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 different scales and in three national societies speculated about hidden hostile international plots behind the project or the resistance. Drawing on more than two years of ethnographic fieldwork 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 international strategies. The Myitsone case shows how deeply international 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 reflect 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.
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Inter-National Conspiracy? Speculating on the Myitsone
Dam Controversy in China, Burma, Kachin, and a Displaced
Laur Kiik
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 dierent 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
reect 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 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,
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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;
Wouter, 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
Myitsone Dam.
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
and plots.
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
power station.
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.’
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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
corporate growth.
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;
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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
(Kiik 2020).
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
start warning:
“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
and observations.
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
own voices.
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
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... In Xinjiang, Tynen (2021) reports how Uyghurs describe feelings of being sick, tired and depressed upon encounters with Chinese state authorities. We contribute to this literature by explicitly linking infrastructure and emotion, together with scholars across the social sciences who highlight infrastructure's affective and ontological characteristics (Appel et al., 2015;Carse, 2014;Cowen, 2014;Dalakoglou & Kallianos, 2018;Graham & Marvin, 2002;Harvey & Knox, 2015;Larkin, 2013;Murton, 2017;Reeves, 2017), including in the Myanmar context (Kiik, 2020;Sarma et al., 2022). ...
... The movement began in 2003, with protest letters written by villagers threatened with resettlement. The movement then spread among Kachin civil society organisations (Kachin Development Networking Group, 2009), before reaching Bamar publics in 2010 (Kiik, 2020). In 2011, the KIO sent an open letter to the Chinese government warning that Myitsone could spark a civil war. ...
... Scholars demonstrate how Kachin activists often saw Myitsone as an existential threat to the Kachin political community. They often compared flooding the Kachin cultural heartland to destroying the Great Wall -a sentiment Kiik (2016Kiik ( , 2020 heard several times in his ethnographic research in Kachin State. By doing so, Kachin activists created an equivalency between the Kachin nation and the Chinese nation. ...
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Geographers have increasingly attended to the role of emotion in geopolitical encounters and the geopolitics of cross‐border infrastructure projects. While scholars have theorized fear as an emotion produced by elite geopolitical discourses and encounters between bodies, we know much less about how infrastructure’s materialities provoke fear and anxiety. Furthermore, key distinctions between anxiety—or a psychological state of insecurity and unease—and fear, which is attached to a specific target object, are still not fully understood. Focused on the uncertainties over China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), we develop the concept of sovereign anxiety—a generalised condition of unease over the security of one's political community—to account for how the BRI generates not only the hard materials of infrastructure (e.g., roads, dams, and pipelines), but also the social practices of affect and emotion. Sovereign anxiety, we argue, is heightened by the absence of transparency over China’s infrastructure investments in Myanmar. In this paper, we trace how sovereign anxiety is variously experienced and grounded in peoples’ observations, personal biographies, social histories, and sense of community belonging. We also identify three themes by which fears of the BRI are articulated: relations, roads, and resources. This article contributes an emotional geopolitics perspective to grounded studies of the BRI, while demonstrating the geopolitical significance of attending to the emotional lives of infrastructure, both in relation to the BRI and beyond.
... The research also investigated one site where villagers had been forcibly evicted from traditional land, and therefore had to engage with new opportunities for non-agricultural income. The village of Tang Hpre, in the Myitsone confluence area of Kachin, was forcibly evicted in 2010 because of planning for a dam project (later postponed) (Kiik, 2020). Most villagers now live in the Aung Myin Thar relocation village. ...
... After the public meeting had ended, various non-military parliamentarians repeated their complaints to the research team. These kinds of observations indicate that, unsurprisingly, the ongoing conflict between Kachin and the Union government influences economic opportunities and political discussion, and where the outcomes suggest that opportunities for Kachin people are restricted, despite the commercialization encouraged by the Union government (see also Kiik, 2020;Woods, 2011). ...
Agricultural commercialization and livelihood diversification have been proposed as ways to bring economic prosperity to rural zones after long-term violent conflict. Critics, however, argue that these market-based interventions exacerbate, rather than resolve, older social divisions, and that commercialization needs to be seen as part of agrarian transition processes. This paper contributes to the analysis of livelihoods-based interventions under violent conflict by presenting research from Kachin State, Myanmar. Drawing on 276 household surveys plus interviews, the paper argues that agrarian transition has only occurred within larger landholders who have been able to increase farm size by expanding commercial agriculture onto land historically used for shifting cultivation. Smallholders, however, have been unable to expand agriculture in this way, partly because of the reallocation of agricultural land to favored investors, including Chinese banana plantations. Meanwhile, access to non-agricultural livelihoods is largely restricted to laboring in Burmese army-controlled jade mines, or to traders arriving from outside the region. These findings indicate a different outcome to research elsewhere in Myanmar that suggests agrarian transition processes can benefit landless people; and instead supports evidence elsewhere in Asia that the agrarian transition can become “truncated” if smallholders do not participate. Making the agrarian transition inclusive requires greater attention to the ethnic, and other social barriers for participation by smallholders and rural landless, rather than facilitating commercialization alone.
... In many respects, the cosmos shapes and influences how people engage with the commons, carving out their own sociocultural and economic worlds through them. Embracing the nebulous and unquantifiable conditions of this schema provides an important counterpoint to existing political economy and political ecology narratives that privilege objectivity and rationality at the expense of other ontological standpoints (Dallman et al., 2013;Gergan, 2020;Kiik, 2020). The value of this counterpoint is echoed in calls to refocus political ecology on the indigenous communities that are often resource dependent, and who forge 'deep emotional connections and sensory experiences associated with certain plants, landscapes and places that are revered as sacred for their crucial role in doctoring, healing, ceremony and prayer' (Dallman et al., 2013, p. 35). ...
... Six months later, an agreement was made to build seven dams at a cost of US$3.7 billion over a 10-year period (Chen, 2019). Of these, the Myitsone dam was designed to become one of the world's 15 largest hydropower stations with the capacity to produce 6000 MW of electricity, whilst also flooding over 700 km 2 of land and displacing 10,000 people (Kiik, 2020). Whilst the project was supported by Myanmar's central government, from the outset it was opposed by the people of Kachin State, where the dam is located. ...
This paper explores how political ecology can advance existing understandings of the BRI and its effects, and how the BRI can contribute to recent shifts in the study of political ecology. It argues that the idea of infrastructural overlap can sensitise discourse to the ways in which the materialisations of the BRI as a series of infrastructural megaprojects intersect with other infrastructural formations, such as the environment and religion. By focussing on the effects of the BRI on resource dependent communities located between the “commons” and the “cosmos” we can appreciate the sense of existential crisis that is triggered and exacerbated by China’s world-building agenda. This is particularly evident in Southeast Asia, where a variety of indigenous communities reflecting a spectrum of beliefs reveal how the sacred politics of the BRI are beginning to manifest. Drawing on the examples of the Lower Sesan 2 dam in Cambodia and the Myitsone dam in Myanmar, three frames are proposed to guide future research on the BRI: recognising variegated and intersecting “sacrednesses”; navigating soft, religious and spiritual power; and reconciling the sacred politics of displacement and dispossession.
... These conspiracies resulted in consequences such as reduced intentions for health protection and the obstruction of public engagement with counter-conspiracy narratives on social media (Chen et al. 2020a(Chen et al. , 2022a. While an increasing amount of research has examined the correlates of beliefs in nation-related conspiracy theories during normal periods and during the COVID-19 pandemic (Duggan and Smith 2016;Kiik 2020), less is known about the predictors of conspiracy theories for people in social contexts such as China, especially during crises. Therefore, using China as our inquiry context, we examined the predictors of nation-related conspiracy theories during the COVID-19 crisis. ...
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The COVID-19 pandemic unleashed a torrent of conspiracy theories across different social media platforms. Parallel to this conspiracy wave was a heightened sense of nationalism, which manifested through both in-group solidarity and perceived out-group threats. In this study, we examine how individuals’ use of government social media to gather political information correlated with nation-related conspiracy beliefs during the pandemic. Data were collected from 745 subjects in China and analyzed through path analyses, which allowed us to examine the direct association with political information consumption from government social media and the indirect association with nationalism on conspiracy beliefs. The results indicated that the use of government social media to gather political information was associated with greater beliefs in nation-variant COVID-19 conspiracies, both directly and through different mediations of nationalism. Our findings highlight the importance of examining government social media use and how nationalism can have differentiated mediation effects on beliefs in conspiracy theories.
... Studies typically examine the role and significance of the types and relations of power, control and access related issues and the marginalization and exclusion of certain population groups. These studies find hunger persists even when there may be enough food resources and controversial projects such as the construction of dams in certain areas may have a severe and detrimental impact in terms of transformed access to local resources, damaged livelihoods, and infringement of basic human rights (IDMC, 2017;Kiik 2020;Mishra 2019;UN Framework Team 2012), all of which conditions can create new forms of scarcity of food, water, or other resources, or exacerbate existing inequalities and lack of access. Hamilton et al. (2019) take a comprehensive view of the scarcity literature and categorize scarcity in terms of product and resource scarcity. ...
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Current conceptualizations of and approaches to scarcity tend to be economic-focused and institution driven with understated and underemphasized sociocultural dimensions. We address this lack in a socio-cultural orientation to natural resource scarcity and draw upon Vygotsky’s theorizations to do so. We rely on the existing literature and secondary sources of information to overview issues relating to water scarcity and the survival related challenges especially in developing country contexts with a specific focus on India. Although Vygotsky theorizes individual learning and development in terms of influences from more knowledgeable individuals to the less knowledgeable, he does not engage so much with how individual learning and development is tied to community interests and community development. We extend Vygotsky by incorporating a responsibilization dimension in theorizations of individual development. Neither does Vygotsky consider how a range of communication modes including traditional or non-traditional media and technology can play an enabling role in reinforcing processes of influence. We include these to further extend Vygotsky. We consider the role of elite individuals such as community leaders and others well-recognized for their socio-cultural status or specialized skills in disseminating knowledge in Vygotsky’s zones of proximal development. We emphasize the circulation of knowledge via sociocultural interactions as pertinent to raising consciousness of natural resource scarcity. We finally discuss initiatives to manage water scarcity at consumer, community and industry-consumer partnership levels. The paper broadens current understandings of scarcity and extends Vygotsky’s sociocultural theorizations in the focus on communities, the responsibilization of consumers as well as in the usage of communication modes, and suggests independent and supported consumer-driven and consumer-centered initiatives as complementary to the existing in seeking solutions to water-scarcity in developing country contexts.
... In the 2010s, a hydroelectric dam was proposed at the Myitsone confluence north of Myitkyina, which would have had significant downstream impacts on river and sediment flow. This dam was eventually suspended following protests about its proposed use to supply China, as well as local impacts on ecology and heritage (Kiik, 2020). The Indawgyi lake zone was designated during the 1960s as a "brownzone," where control is mixed between KIA and Tatmadaw, sometimes with local militias from Shan Ni (Tai Leng) people. ...
Landscape Approaches have been proposed as a transferable model of multi-stakeholder governance, yet assume conditions of ideal speech, trust, and transparency that seem untransferable to authoritarian regimes. This paper argues that building Landscape Approaches under authoritarian conditions cannot be based on a governance deficit model of awaiting idealized political conditions, but instead needs to pay attention to how local social and political structures influence what is deliberated, and by whom. The paper presents evidence from a multi-stakeholder environmental intervention around Lake Indawgyi in Kachin State, Myanmar, to draw lessons for transferring Landscapes Approaches under conditions of political authoritarianism, sporadic violent conflict, and rapid socio-economic change. Using information gathered from village surveys and interviews with policymakers, the paper analyzes how multifunctionality, stakeholder engagement, and deliberation are achieved, and with whose influence. The paper argues that common principles of Landscapes Approaches need to acknowledge more how state-led agendas can influence agendas and participation in conservation; but also how the composition and interests of stakeholders are not fixed under socio-economic transformation. Focusing on local and contextual drivers of environmental change and political inequality are more useful for transferring Landscape Approaches to authoritarian regimes than adhering to optimistic principles, or testing associations between variables without reference to context. Indeed, the latter risks depoliticizing conflictual processes, and implicitly endorsing political inequalities. The 2021 military coup in Myanmar has added to these inequalities.
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Myanmar, a nation situated between India, China and Southeast Asia, has long histories of colonialism, violence, and resource extraction. This special issue introduction, written in the midst of Myanmar’s 2021 military coup and the COVID-19 pandemic, offers two critical and feminist interventions – ‘remaking’ and ‘living with’ – to understand the contested and embodied political geographies of extractive resource frontiers in Myanmar. ‘Remaking’ focuses on the long roots of resource frontiers, underscoring the historical and spatial processes through which Myanmar’s plural authorities have restructured diverse territories for accumulation and extraction from the pre-colonial period to the recent ‘democratic transition’. ‘Living with’ resource frontiers bring attention to people’s everyday lives, and why and how they adapt, resist, comply, suffer and profit from resource frontiers. In bringing together a diverse set of literatures with original empirical research, the articles in this collection offer analyses of Myanmar’s pre-coup period that inform contemporary post-coup politics. Together, they demonstrate the material, affective, and embodied nature of resource frontiers as they are (re)made and lived with – in and beyond militarised spaces like Myanmar.
This article argues that a peculiar pattern of dependent asymmetry – ‘dual dependence’, i.e. a combination of internal and external dependence – has come to characterize the structure of China-Myanmar relations since the late 1980s. The hypothesis we present is that shifts in this pattern of dependent asymmetry account for fluctuations in China-Myanmar relations between 2011 and 2021. We test this hypothesis against empirical evidence from what we identify as two shifts in the structure of bilateral relations: for each, we trace how structural changes were perceived in Naypyitaw and Beijing, and how such perceptions oriented an adjustment in their respective policies. Myanmar’s reduced external dependence on China in 2011–2012 expanded the set of the potential courses of action available to Myanmar’s decision-makers and reduced the set of those available to China; conversely, the opposite happened in 2017–2018, following Myanmar’s return to full-fledged external dependence on China. The paper finally speculates that the military coup in 2021 could well represent a third shift in the structure of bilateral relations, further strengthening Myanmar’s external dependence on China and constraining the military government’s room of manoeuvre.
This paper makes a novel contribution by examining the puzzle of one Southeast Asian nation, Myanmar, and its dramatic shift of ‘fortune’ in its international status and the domestic consequences of that shift during the decade of 2010–2020. It highlights how the country’s changing international relations affected its domestic political decision-making process. It puts forth the argument that the amount of international attention the country received since 2011 as the target of competitive courtship between China, United States, and the West in general, and the consequent feeling of being valued as a geostrategic asset, created strong conditions for overconfidence on part of Myanmar’s government and military. This favorable international environment also coincided with perceived progress in democratization domestically. Similar to its past patterns of behavior toward ethnic minorities, the Myanmar military and the government overestimated their likelihood of success in dealing with the Rohingya minority while underestimating the likelihood of punishment by the international community.
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How do movements against resource extraction projects handle ethnic conflict? In 2011, Burma/Myanmar created a diplomatic scandal when it one-sidedly halted the construction of the Myitsone Dam, derailing China’s then largest-ever hydropower project abroad. Leading up to its suspension, this project faced resistance by Burma’s ethnic majority Bamars as well as by minority ethnic Kachins, even while Kachin–Bamar tensions were rising as a decades-long civil war resumed. Drawing from ethnographic interviews, discourse analysis, and more than two years of fieldwork between 2010 and 2019, this paper traces the multi-ethnic history of resistance to Myitsone Dam, as told through various activists’ own voices. More than from Burma’s democratic transition, environmentalism, or geopolitics, anti-dam resistance emerged from two separate civilian nationalist movements – Kachin and Bamar – that mirrored Burma’s Bamar nationalist domination and ethnic conflict. Yet, resistance partly emerged from difficult inter-ethnic encounters – or, “confluences amidst conflict.” Kachin fears of losing their homeland resembled Bamar fears of Chinese takeover. A rare story amid decades of war and resource grabbing, Myitsone is a struggle over homeland and nature that did not unite, but did link Burma’s clashing nations.
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In Myanmar, the notion that local conflicts can be halted by addressing economic rather than political grievances guides ceasefire agreements with non-state armed actors and informs regional efforts on economic development in troubled conflict areas. However, these economic development efforts are evolving alongside deeply held communal concerns about the intentions and effects of investments in areas previously controlled by ethnic minority armed actors. In this context, the Chinese government's flagship development project in Myanmar, the Myitsone Dam in Kachin State, became a rallying point for communal protest. This led the Myanmar government to halt work on the project in 2011. Currently, Myanmar is coming under immense pressure from the Chinese government to resume work on the Myitsone dam. At the same time, however, a strong social movement is actively opposing the dam project. This has resulted in increased military tension along the two countries' shared border. This illustrates that investments in economic infrastructure projects, while ostensibly aimed at increasing stability through economic concessions and regional development, may instead increase tension and insecurity.
Scholarship on resource frontiers has often privileged moments of discovery and sites of spectacular infrastructure and extraction. Yet smallholders can alter socio-ecological landscapes in ways that structure spatial and political possibilities even after resource rushes wane. In this paper, I draw on ethnographic research to illustrate how agrarian frontier histories shape contemporary ethnic and territorial boundary-making. In Kalay Valley, activists drew on the colonial principle of ethnic separation and aligned with a national turn towards territorialisation to successfully advocate for restoring the colonial boundary. But efforts at demarcation contrasted with historical practices of cultivating ambiguity on the rice frontier, spurring new forms of border work. I argue, first, that this case demonstrates a change in how land is governed in Myanmar – from a regime of cultivated ambiguity, towards one of negotiated delineation – and, second, that it underscores the need for greater attention to the ways in which agrarian frontier practices shape racialized territorialisation.
Since independence in 1948, Burma has suffered from many internal conflicts. One of the longest of these has been in the Kachin State, in the north of the country where Burma has borders with India to the west and China to the east. This book explores the origins of the armed movement that started in 1961 and considers why it has continued for so long. The book places the problems that have led to hostilities between the political heartland of Burma and one of its most important peripheries in a longer perspective than usual. It explains how the experience of globalisation and international geopolitics from the late eighteenth century onwards produced the local politics of exclusion and resistance. It also uses detailed ethnographic research to explore the social and cultural dynamics of Kachin ethno-nationalism, providing a rich analysis that goes beyond the purely political. This analysis also provides new insights on the work of Edmund Leach and recent representations of Zomia proposed by James C. Scott. The research draws upon an extensive range of sources, including archival materials in Jinghpaw and an extensive study of ritual and ritual language. Making a wide variety of cross-disciplinary observations, it explains in depth and breadth how a region such as the Kachin State came into being. When combined with detailed local insights into how these experiences contributed to the historical development of modern Kachin ethno-nationalism, the book encourages new ways of thinking about the Kachin region and its history of armed resistance.
Through a comparative historical analysis of two sites on Myanmar’s borders with China and Thailand, this article explores how natural resources affected border-making in Zomia. Firstly, the article argues that demand for natural resources drove lowland states’ territorialisation of the highlands in the late nineteenth century, including their desire to demarcate borders. Secondly, local actors chose different political strategies in response to lowland state penetration. Some chose to attempt to repel lowland states, others to avoid them. The type of natural resources available (‘lootable’ versus ‘unlootable’ resources) enhanced or diminished the effectiveness of the political tactics chosen by local actors. Thirdly, the article explores whether local politics or the ‘knowability’ of natural resources determined the differential success of border-making in the region. This attention to natural resources can deepen histories of ‘state-escaping’ highland peoples. This also has implications for the question of human agency and environmental determinism in Zomia, a question which is often implicit but unaddressed when scholars use the concept of the ‘friction of terrain’. In the context of accelerating climate change and the global spread of pathogens, understanding the potential for agency of non-human objects is more important than ever. Drawing on archival materials from the Myanmar National Archives, India Office Records, and the British Library, this study gives insights into both the politics of this region today, and how natural resources affected border-making at the margins of states.
In this article, I examine the relationship between state, ethnicity, territoriality and neoliberal capitalism in the tribal areas of highland Northeast India, where I focus in particular on the socioecological and socio-political corollaries of its rediscovery as a resource and capitalist frontier. In so doing, I apply (capitalist) ‘desire’ and (ethnic) ‘closure’ as key analytics to capture the contentiously unfolding history of the region’s present. This article shows how new resource and capital flows lead both to the production of capitalist ‘desires’ and socioecological destruction through the privatization, acquisition and depletion, mostly by ethnic tribal elites, of communal assets now embedded in newly capitalist relations, and to the intensification of a politics of exclusive ethnoterritorial belonging and rights. The latter comes in the form of volatile social processes of ethnic ‘closure’; an increasing preoccupation, that is, on part of tribal ethnic communities with the protecting, patrolling and legislating of ethno-territorial rights. The upshot of this is a dialectic between new neoliberal connectivities and ethnic ‘closure’, one that ensues in a frame of the specifics of governance and law in highland Northeast India.
Asymmetrical Neighbors explains the variations in state building across the borderland area between China, Myanmar, and Thailand. It presents a comparative historical account of the state and nation-building processes in the ethnically diverse and geographically rugged borderland area where China meets Southeast Asia. It argues the failure of the Myanmar state to consolidate its control over its borderland area is partly due to the political and military meddling by its two more powerful neighbors during the Cold War. Furthermore, both China and Thailand, being more economically advanced than Myanmar, have exerted heavy economic influence on the borderland area at the cost of Myanmar’s economic sovereignty. The book provides a historical account of the borderland that traces the pattern of relations between valley states and upland people before the mid-twentieth century. Then it discusses the implications of the Chinese nationalist KMT troops in Burma and Thailand and Burmese and Thai communist insurgencies since the mid-1960s on attempts by the three states to consolidate their respective borderland areas. The book also portrays the dynamics of the borderland economy and the dominance of both China and Thailand on Myanmar’s borderland territory in the post-Cold War period. It further discusses the comparative nation-building processes among the three states and the implications for the ethnic minority groups in the borderland area and their national identity contestations. Finally, the book provides an updated account of the current ethnic conflicts along Myanmar’s restive borderland and its ongoing peace negotiation process.
Democratic transitions are often followed by conflict. This article explores one explanation: the military's strategic use of violence to retain control of economically valuable regions. The authors uncover this dynamic in Myanmar, a country transitioning from four decades of military rule. Fearing that the new civilian government will assert authority over jade mining, the military initiated violence in mining townships. Using geocoded data on conflict and jade mines, the authors find evidence for this strategic use of violence. As Myanmar started to transition in 2011, conflicts instigated by the military in jademining areas sharply rose. The article also addresses alternative explanations, including a shift in the military's strategy, colocation of mines and military headquarters, commodity prices, opposition to a controversial dam, and trends specific to Kachin State. With implications beyond Myanmar, the authors argue that outgoing generals can use instability to retain rents where plausible challengers to state authority provide a pretense for violence.