Myanmar’s nominal civilian government has suspended a controversial $3.6 billion hydroelectric power project which has faced objections from various social strata nationwide, according to the Eleven News Media Group.
The 500-foot dam has been under construction at the confluence of the Mali Hka River and N’Mai Hka River, 27 miles north of the Kachin capital of Myitkyina. Construction at Myitsone began December 21, 2009, led by China’s state owned China Power Investment Corporation (CPI) in cooperation with Burma’s Asia World Company (AWC) and the Burmese government’s No. 1 Ministry of Electric Power.
Remarkably, AWC owner is former drug lord, Lo Hsing Han. It will cost 3.6 billion dollars and most of the 6000 MW of electricity produced will be sold out to China.
On 10 September, Union Minister for Electric Power No (1) Zaw Min said in a meeting with media, the government will carry on construction of the Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy River despite severe criticism and environmental and communal risks, some Rangoon-based journals spotlighted.
Zaw Min also challenged the people that the government will not withdraw the project due to any objection.
Antagonism to the hydro-power dam on the Irrawaddy has been increasing because pro-democracy and environmental activists test the limits of their right under the new outwardly civilian government, which is under control by military officers from previous junta. If the government stubbornly stuck up for the dam project, there might be another mass protest similar to the 1988 people’s uprising.
In such a critical moment, President Thein Sein sent a letter of presidential office dated 29 September to the current parliament regular session. There are 10 points in the President’s letter. Suspension of the Myitsone dam project is one in the 10-point letter saying that the Chinese-backed Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy River in Kachin state would be put off during the term of the existing government.
According to the president’s letter No. 151 (2) 8/3, the Irrawaddy dam project must be postponed since the government has been elected by the people and it has an obligation to respect the determination of the people, the Eleven Media Group’s Online journal said.
In 2009, Thailand-based Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG) published a report – “Resisting the Flood” – highlighting the implementation of the Myitsone dam project on the Irrawaddy River. The report demanded a halt to the project that is sponsored by the China Power Investment Corporation (CPI), its main investor and contractor.
The dam project creates unwelcome impacts like social, environmental, livelihood, cultural and security problems for tens of thousands of people in the Kachin State. The report states that more than 15,000 people in 60 villages around the dam sites are being forcibly relocated without proper relocation. These individuals have lost their means of livelihood such as farming, fishing and collection of non-timber forest products.
In the past, Kachin people had made an official plea to the former junta’s boss Senior-General Than Shwe to stop the project due to environmental damage. But he always turned a deaf ear to the call. The junta boss regularly obeys the Chinese government over the dam projects.
In a statement issued on 11 August, Myanmar’s Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi said the dam endangers the flow of the Irrawaddy River, which she described as “the most significant geographical feature of our country.
“We believe that, taking into account the interests of both countries, both governments would hope to avoid consequences which might jeopardize lives and homes,” Suu Kyi emphasized.
“To safeguard the Irrawaddy is to save from harm our economy and our environment, as well as to protect our cultural heritage,” she added.
On 20 September, Myanmar security Police detained a 46-year-old man who staged a rare solo protest against the project outside a Chinese embassy building in Yangon. He raised a banner demanding a halt to the Myitsone hydropower dam project in Kachin state, electricity from which will sell out to neighboring China.
As a great number of Myanmar citizens inside and outside the country opposed the massive dam project, the president decided to suspend it. The president’s decision seems to be wiser this time avoiding nationwide protest in time.