Myitsone dam: Myanmar's white elephant

You probably didn't know this, and if you did, well, you're pretty clever and you should leave a comment at the bottom of the page- but, white elephant is an IDIOM in English.

So, a 'white elephant' in English refers to a very expensive mistake that is embarrassing and difficult to fix, which remains visible to people.

The Myitsone dam in Kachin State is a good example of a white elephant. It is a very expensive project that has now been halted and the Myanmar Government is trying to figure out (= solve) what to do with it.

Read the article below and match the people and agencies with the features on the right.

  1. Skim the article to find the people and agencies (which will be in order)

  2. Read the sentences before and after the person and try and match it to a feature.

  3. Remember: if you can't make a match, move on. Do the easier ones first!


The Myitsone dam in ethnic Kachin state, ranked as one of the biggest hydropower projects in the region, was suspended by former President Thein Sein in 2011. It is a relatively rare event for a massive Chinese overseas dam project to be blocked by a popular protest. In Myanmar, the protests united all ethnic groups living along the river and nationwide.

This dam, if ever built, would inundate the ancestral birthplace of the ethnic Kachin people. Khon Ja, the coordinator of the Kachin Peace Network, stated that “the dam would erode the lifeblood of the nation that sustains agriculture, fisheries, and livelihoods for millions.”

Most Chinese academics see things in a very different context. Fan Hongwei, an expert on Myanmar at Xiamen University believes that “The abrupt suspension of such a significant project has blurred political trust between China and Myanmar.”

Many observers had believed that the strategic environmental assessment (SEA) commissioned by the Myanmar government to study hydropower impacts on Myanmar’s rivers would be the clinching factor in persuading the National League for Democracy (NLD) government to finally cancel the dam. The SEA report strongly recommends against building the Myitsone Dam and all other hydropower projects on the mainstream of Myanmar’s five major rivers.

U Win Khaing, the energy minister, mentioned last year that the ministry was quietly working on a new hydropower policy and preparing a white paper, but gave no details. The ministry has long had close links with China’s National Energy Administration and the China Renewable Energy Engineering Institute.

The recent Chinese ambassador ‘s mission to pressure ethnic Kachin leaders to come around to the Chinese way of thinking about supporting the Myitsone dam was met with a firm rejection. But a completely opposite spin appeared on the Chinese embassy website a few days later, which claimed that “Kachin political leaders and social organisations had a ‘positive attitude’ towards the 6000-megawatt Myitsone Dam. Local people of Kachin State do not oppose the Myitsone hydropower project.”

Khon Ja, coordinator of the Kachin Peace Network, told The Diplomat that this was a campaign to sow discord and confusion. “The Chinese Embassy has reported the opposite of what was said by those leaders who have publicly opposed the project,” she said. “This is dangerous. I think it is worse than a divide-and-rule approach.”

There is little doubt that if a referendum were to be held, the dam would be overwhelmingly rejected. A Yangon School of Political Science (YSPS) poll estimated 85 percent of people in Myanmar were opposed the Myitsone dam in 2017.

In spite of the huge weight of public opinion against the dam, cancellation and a costly compensation deal of several hundred million dollars is not the most likely outcome.

U Thaung Tun, minister of investment and foreign economic relations, who has conceded the deep unpopularity of the project, recently told an investment conference that “Negotiations are underway to change the size, scale, or location of the Myitsone dam project in Kachin state.”

In reality, the Myitsone dam is not such a big issue for China. Myitsone is a ‘win-win’ because it might get built, there might be compensation, there might be an alternative project, or it might advance Chinese geopolitical interests.

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