A boatman waiting for passengers at Myitson River junction near Myitkyina town in Kachin State, Feb. 22, 2012. (Photo by AFP)
As Myanmar's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, visits China, those displaced by the Chinese-backed Myitsone Dam project in Kachin State hope any agreement made over the suspended project favors local interests and not those of Beijing.
"The new government [of Myanmar] is elected by the public so we believe that they will listen to the voices of local people," said Lu Ra, a Baptist woman who was displaced by the mega dam project in April 2011.
"Our ultimate goal is to halt the project completely and return to our villages," she said.
Four months ago, Lu Ra built a temporary bamboo house near her old farm in Myitsone but she remains wary. She was detained and questioned by district-level officials in 2013 for working in a restricted area.
"Even now, we don't feel safe farming there … despite the fact there have been no arrests or questioning of the villagers recently," she said.
The massive Myitsone project remains highly unpopular among Kachin State's predominantly Christian population.
But China desperately wants to re-start the US$ 3.8 billion project. Observers predict that it will be high on the official agenda during Suu Kyi's four-day trip to China, which began Aug. 17.
Dam construction was suspended by the previous administration of President Thein Sein in September 2011. Reasons given for the suspension were fervent public opposition to the project and its impact on the environment and communities living along the Irrawaddy River.
Benedette Ja Hkawn, a Catholic who was displaced by the project, said that she and others were forced to leave their native Tangphre Village in 2011.
"There was a fear under the military rule … so we had to leave our village and we [never] had a chance to express our opposition," Ja Hkawng, a mother of eight, told ucanews.com.
Ja Hkawng said that now the main challenge for displaced villagers is daily survival as there is insufficient land for everyone to farm in the new locations.
She said that since 2014, villagers have been returning to their respective homes in Myitsone to resume farming what was their land.
"We will continue voicing our opposition to the dam until the new government halts it fully," Ja Hkawng said.
China has a significant economic and strategic interest in the region and has several controversial hydroelectric dams scattered throughout Kachin State. These projects are large-scale energy endeavors funded by China Power Investment Corporation and the China Datang Group. Most of the profits and electricity produced through these projects go back to China, analysts say.
Myanmar's President Htin Kyaw formed a commission on Aug. 12 to review hydropower projects in the country including Myitsone Dam.
The 20-member commission will review and scrutinize hydropower projects in accordance with international and local laws related to environmental conservation. It will make recommendations on whether or not the project should proceed. Their first report is due Nov. 11.