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6 Oct 2018

Jason Tower, American Friends Service Committee (AFSC),
Jason Tower, American Friends Service Committee (AFSC),
Jason Tower, American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)

The 3.6 Billion Dollar Lesson: Beyond the Us v. Them Business Model

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In early 2011, a report on the website of the then China Power Investment Company (CPI) boasted of the security arrangements that were to be placed around the construction site of the Myistone Dam project, which at that time was set to become the largest hydropower dam in Southeast Asia. The report noted that the site was to “become an island of security” and that no one, especially local armed groups, would be able to “infiltrate” the fortifications placed around the project.

Just two years earlier, Myanmar and China had entered into an agreement regarding the 3.6 billion dollar project, located at the confluence of the Mali and N’mai Rivers, which also happens to be the source of Myanmar’s “mother river, ”the Ayeyawady River, which is critical for the country’s food security and navigation.

While CPI emphasized that the Myanmar Army had invited it to construct the dam in this location in the northern highlands of the Southeast Asian country in 2006, public narratives in China spoke of the project as a “gift” to the people of Myanmar, and a solution to the severe energy shortages which plague the country’s development to today. Yet, the contrast between this story and that being told just a stone’s throw away from the dam throughout Kachin State could not be starker. As it noted in a letter in May of 2011, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), one of Myanmar’s largest nationalities groups discussed how the dam could lead to civil war between the KIA and the Myanmar army, pleading for project owners to halt the construction. Sadly, just months later, war broke out, and continues today.

Meanwhile, hundreds of kilometers away in communities along the Ayeyawady River, similar stories of concern could be heard: how would this impact traditional Burmese livelihoods? What would this mean for rice cultivation in the downstream? For fisheries? For people’s dreams for the future? Suddenly, communities across the country were linked by a common concern— the pending doom that this project would bring.

For two years from 2010 until 2011, activists, artists, scientists, doctors, educators, farmers, and faith leaders joined a movement that culminated in the September 2011 announcement by the Myanmar President of the project’s suspension in accordance with the “will of the people.” Seen locally as a watershed moment, the Myitsone took on great symbolism. For the first time in decades of military rule, the people had stood together, and local voices from across the country had been heard. While the announcement brought excitement to communities throughout the country, at another level, the outcome also generated very serious issues in what is likely Myanmar’s most important bilateral relationship: that with China. The gaps in the narratives in two cities seated only 700 kilometers away—Mandalay and Kunming—were just too different. People in China could not understand how a “gift” had been rejected, or why a war had broken out, and how the project’s cancellation might have taken on such symbolism.

Over the past several years, I have witnessed many such examples, and heard many similar stories from across the globe of how business results unexpectedly in conflict, damaging relations between companies and communities, communities and government, government and companies, and even between states. At the roots of all of these stories, are the same mistakes: rather than building relationships, consulting with local people and designing investments with strong popular support, investors instead look at communities as threats; they harbor the enduring suspicion that the community may do harm to the investor.

It is unfortunate, but prevailing models of security around investments are “us vs. them” models. According to this way of thinking, security companies are brought in, walls are constructed, fortresses are built around projects, and the community is subject to monitoring. Yet, such scenarios are good neither for the companies nor the communities in which they want to invest. As fences get higher, community concerns and distrust of the particular company rise, causing the company to perceive greater levels of risk, leading to greater spending on fences. Who benefits? In the end, probably only the security company, which has a built-in interest in maintaining low level tensions between businesses and communities, and identifying increasing levels of risks so that it can market ever more sophisticated, and expensive, security products to corporations.

The “island of security” that CPI aspired to create around the Myitsone Dam was probably the most extreme example; that construction of a dam project might continue with civil war raging just kilometers away is hard to imagine, especially when one of the warring parties pointed to the dam as a proximate cause of the conflict.

So what is the answer? The notion of shared security, that business interests must find security in, and not from the communities that host them is key.  Imagine if instead of security departments, businesses establish peace-building departments, which have the function of listening closely to community concerns, and considering all of the different forms of divisions and connections within and around their host communities. If corporate stakeholders worked to become peace-builders, and considered carefully the ways in which their activities impact these divisions and connections, they could, at a minimum, avoid “doing harm” or exacerbating tensions within host communities. Taken a step further, this approach could make a major contribution to reducing conflict on a global scale, while also dramatically reducing security costs and conflict management costs for companies;  just imagine if every business group tracked its footprint on peace as carefully as it tracks its profits?

The story of the Myitsone is one of very mixed emotions: one of war, loss, destruction and anger, but also one of solidarity, empowerment, and standing up in the face of oppression. It also illustrates a very important, and expensive lesson—a 3.6 billion dollar lesson to be precise —of the failures of traditional, militarized, us vs. them approaches to security.