“Save the Irrawaddy!”: Diverse Perceptions of the River Valley among its inhabitants

Marion Sabrié considers different views on Myanmar’s iconic river.

The following is the first post in Tea Circle’s Forum on Myanmar’s Waterways. To add your voice to the discussion, please email your submissions to editor@teacircleoxford.com.

For centuries, Myanmar has been considered the land of the Valley of the Irrawaddy River by the Bamar (the ethnic majority) and also by successive sovereigns, the British colonizers, other inhabitants of the country and by national and international researchers. The river has always provided water for domestic use, irrigation and transportation, as well as fish for food. Today, the perception of the centrality of the river valley for Myanmar’s territory not only belongs to the Bamars, but is shared by the Kachin ethnic tribes who live at the river’s sources, at the confluence between the N’mai and the Mali rivers in northern Kachin State. It is also the way that geography is taught to Myanmar children at school. This leads us to ask a number of questions: How is the river valley perceived through indigenous eyes? It can lead to very unexpected answers, as when three years ago, a woman living along the Irrawaddy banks told me that she didn’t “find the Irrawaddy very beautiful” because she didn’t “have any time to gaze at the river”.  How have perceptions of the Irrawaddy’s role evolved in terms of the country’s organization, beyond traditional views? How does the mental map of the country’s inhabitants relate to the economic and urban map of Myanmar’s territory?

My analysis here is focused on the relationship between inhabitants and the place they live, and on the perception of their territory that they build from the reality. By “perception”, I mean “how things are remembered or recalled by people.” It also refers to the ways in which millions of pieces of information about places are received by people through their senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. It also stems from secondary sources, for example through the media. Because of the recent economic openness of Myanmar, the pressure on the Irrawaddy river has never been stronger and its protection has never been so vocally defended by political and intellectual elites, the local riparian inhabitants (those living along the river banks), the Bamars and the Kachins, and by the NGOs supporting them. This vision is developed and shared among various discourses such as the “Irrawaddy Appeal” or “Save the Irrawaddy”. First, I will analyze how the ‘Great River’ of Myanmar is seen and defended by groups within civil society. Then, I’ll confront it with the economic and urban roles of the river on the territory. Is there any economic decline of the river valley? Finally, I will examine the new role played by the Irrawaddy.

The ‘Great River’ of Myanmar, as defended by civil society:

“The Irrawaddy is a Great River” (Nuwattiwong 1888), “Burma is the land of the Irrawaddy” (Chibber 1933), “The Irrawaddy gives life to Burma” (O’Connor 1904).


Even though there are four other major rivers in the country (Kaladan, Chindwin, Sittang, Mekong), the Irrawaddy has remained the one called the “great river” for centuries. It has long been considered the major artery of the country, although we did not get any testimonies defending its greatness before the 19th century. Nonetheless, the Irrawaddy was an axis of settlement and urbanization, thanks to its inheritance of the royal capital cities along the river banks. The Valley is still an important urbanization axis although its population growth is not as dynamic as it is in other regions. The perception of the Irrawaddy as the artery of the country still remains.

The movement to save and protect the river has never been stronger, especially since the official start of Myitsone hydroelectric dam in 2009. As the dam project took its toll, civil society, inside and outside of the country, organized itself to protect the river valley and its people. Civil society in Kachin State is organized as spearheaded by religious organizations, through which Kachin society is traditionally structured, and by social networks, that are coming together for environmental and social causes to avoid the building of Myitsone dam. Although they are not environmental groups, they are also fighting together against the flooding of a zone that includes fauna and flora, a 100 year-old Baptist church, a Roman Catholic church, and a Buddhist pagoda, which is also part of the project. The flooding would be a loss for the patrimony and cultural inheritances. Moreover, the Myitsone project has other impacts on religious practice, given that interviewees told me that people are still baptized in the Irrawaddy at Myitsone.

The repercussions of the dam project will not only affect the territory of Kachin State but its impact will be felt all along the Valley, especially in the delta area. One inhabitant of Tang Hpre told me in 2014 that, “This natural site [Myitsone] is more crucial for the people living in the plains areas than the ones in the mountains: they would be more affected if the dam is built. It is an essential logic to keep in mind.” The low plain of the delta, one of the most important economic regions, relies on the upper lands, especially on the water supply for irrigation, home use and fishing.

With the opposition to Myitsone hydroelectric plant, the River became a cultural symbol of the opposition of civil society towards the government of Senior-General Than Shwe (chief of the military junta from 1992 to 2011) which settled the project, as well as the opposition of the Myanmar government towards China. Since 2007, a number of declarations and reports have been made by the civil society on that topic: “Cancel the 7 Dams, Save the Irrawaddy” (Burma Rivers Network 2007), “From those who wish the Irrawaddy will flow forever” (Save the Irrawaddy Campaign 2011), “A Song to save and protect our River Mother Irrawaddy” (Jimmy Nathan 2012). But the civil society groups that are expressing themselves loudly are either educated elites or are directly touched by the dam project, that is, they live mostly in Kachin State. The riparian people who work a lot have no time to think about the project or even its meaning for the Irrawaddy: one told me in 2014, “I am very focused on my work. I don’t have time to think about the river nor to its beauty.”

More than 95% of the river inhabitants are only concerned with their livelihoods while 5% are involved with ecological issues. Some other people, maybe around less than 5% of the Myanmar inhabitants, are involved against the Myitsone dam project. Most of them live in the Irrawaddy basin (but not necessarily along its banks). The voice of these civil society groups is also shared by the politicians from the NLD and is reinforced by them. For example, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi got more involved in 2011 by publishing an appeal called “Save the Irrawaddy!”. They have both a common friend but many also perceive a common “enemy”: the Chinese companies investing in Myanmar and destroying its natural resources. Even the previous USDP government, under U Thein Sein, also declared its “Irrawaddy Appeal” before choosing to stop the Myitsone dam project.

There is also a very strong defense of the river mainly because of economic pressure due to new economic liberalization. Many riparian inhabitants were relocated because of the dam projects, so it has a direct impact on the daily life of more than 12,000 people and, according to International Rivers’ estimate, a non-direct impact on more than 40% of the Myanmar population. But most of the people living outside of the Kachin State and others who are not elites, or who have less education, don’t realize the importance of the Irrawaddy even though they still drink its water, and wash themselves and their laundry in the River.  Thus, we see very different attitudes among different groups towards the protection of this “Great River.”

A River Valley in Economic Decline?

Today, however, the role of the Irrawaddy River is in decline, despite two economic centers (Yangon and Mandalay), two major agricultural regions that are still situated along its banks (the Irrawaddy Delta and Mandalay Plain) and its fisheries. The agriculture and fisheries sectors, both affected by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, nowadays are experiencing very slow development. The agriculture along the Irrawaddy is still mainly labor-intensive with the use of few fertilizers and sparse mechanization. Industries are also sparse along the Valley and the transportation is very slow. The economic development of Burma has also suffered from nearly 50 years of dictatorship and, more recently, six years of renewed conflict between the government army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Because of this, riparian populations have been displaced, lands have been seized and locals have been killed. These reasons still explain why the general economic and technological development of the Irrawaddy River Valley is slow even though it might change with recent economic development.

For example, Yangon, which is situated along the Yangon River – the eastern branch of the Irrawaddy Delta – was the capital city of the country until the 6th of November, 2005. It was moved to Nay Pyi Taw, 350 kilometers in the north, on a tributary of the Sittang River. The Sittang valley is situated 150 kilometers in the east of the Irrawaddy Valley. Because of the position of the new capital, all new roads built lead to it. This new concurrence is weakening the role played by Yangon in territorial dynamics. With the moving of the capital city from Yangon to Nay Pyi Taw, is the Sittang Valley becoming competitive or complementary to the Irrawaddy River Valley? Could it also explain the economic decline of the Irrawaddy Valley?

The Irrawaddy Valley is still the main populated valley of Myanmar, but it does not have the largest population growth compared to the other regions, even though Yangon and Mandalay, the two main economic cities, belong to the Valley. The economic importance of the border area is also a reason for the Irrawaddy Valley’s lessened attractiveness, as many move to the border to seek out new opportunities. Most of the economic activities of the Irrawaddy Valley are in decline. However, the Irrawaddy valley is still the major agricultural region and the largest fishery zone. Of course, even if a major part of the river valley is in decline, its inhabitants retain the way of life they’ve had along the river for some 60 years: they practice the same activities which are mainly unaffected by globalization. For this reason, I consider what role the valley might play at a local scale, even if its role is shifting at the scale of the nation: is there a new role played by the valley at a local level?

A new role for the Irrawaddy Valley

2014-yangon-sabrieThe Irrawaddy Valley’s environment is slowly becoming more central in the daily lives of the Myanmar inhabitants, especially in the urban zones. Although it a less visible reality in Myanmar than it might be elsewhere, river banks are no longer dedicated only to economic functions. Even though the new capital city does not belong to the Irrawaddy Valley anymore, the ancient major economic centers are still increasing their role in the territory. Nay Pyi Taw Airport was opened in 2010, but most of the tourists and businessmen arrive in Myanmar through the Yangon and Mandalay airports. The head offices of Myanmar companies, that were supposed to have moved to Nay Pyi Taw, were maintained in Yangon. Along the banks of the Yangon River, the eastern tributary of the Irrawaddy, are new projects such as industrial and special economic zones, including those of the Thilawa deep sea port along with housing zones. For example, “Star City,” called “the Burmese Singapore” is a housing project built along the opposite bank of the Central Business District in Yangon. The recreational function of the river banks has not yet been developed but because of the construction of one or two other central business districts, the old business district situated in downtown, close to the port, will be renovated, meaning further investment will likely come to the Yangon River’s banks.



The stance of civil society towards the Irrawaddy River has long remained the same. But in Kachin State, the inhabitants are nowadays more focused on maintaining their livelihoods and on the resolution of the conflict between the KIA and the national military than on the defense of the River. The population has been impoverished by the conflict, farming lands have been seized by the government and homes destroyed. Some of them have been displaced. Nonetheless, Myitsone remains an important cultural symbol for the Kachin people and the Myanmar elite; they did not forget that the construction of the Myitsone dam could start again after the 2015 elections, even if it hasn’t yet restarted in 2017. The civil society groups are still concerned by the project, but it hasn’t been strongly back on the political agenda, largely due to the ongoing conflict. The cultural role of the Irrawaddy has retained meaning throughout Myanmar’s history, although nowadays the Sittang is important too. The natural resources of the Irrawaddy are a gift and a curse at the same time. In 2017, the river is playing a more limited role in the national territory and in the country’s  economy, but there could be a renewal of its role at a local level in the coming decades, especially in the major cities and economic capitals of Yangon and Mandalay.
Since 2003, Marion Sabrié has been travelling to Myanmar and along the Irrawaddy River banks. She got a B.A. in Burmese Language from INALCO in Paris. While living in Yangon between 2007 and 2010, she did her 4th year of Burmese Language in Yangon University of Foreign Language. Her PhD research focused on the role played by the Irrawaddy River on the Myanmar territory. She is currently teaching Geography of Myanmar at the INALCO, Paris. She is also an Assistant Lecturer in the Geography Department of Paris 13 University.