China is pushing the Myanmar government to restart the controversial U.S. $3.6-billion Myitsone Dam project, which was temporarily halted in 2011 by outgoing President Thein Sein amid fervent opposition mainly because of the environmental destruction it was predicted to cause.
Myanmar’s incoming government under the National League for Democracy (NLD) will now have to decide whether to let China Power Investment Corporation (CPI), one of China’s largest state-owned electricity producers, continue building the 6,000-megawatt dam along the Irrawaddy River in northern Myanmar’s Kachin State.
China’s Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin told a news conference on Thursday that the dam is an “important cooperation project” and that its contract terms are still in force, Reuters reported.
“I think that the existing government has no time to get this project restarted,” he was quoted as saying. “I believe that once the new government is in office, the Chinese government will continue to discuss with them how to restart this project.”
Although a 23-member delegation from Myanmar’s outgoing Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) government is about to meet with foreign affairs representatives from the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, it is unlikely they will discuss the Myitsone Dam project.
“Our USDP chairman, President Thein Sein, suspended the Myitsone Dam project during his presidential term as people wished,” said Tint Zaw, a member of the USDP’s Central Executive Committee. “The USDP has no policy on nor has it held discussions about the Myitsone Dam.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday congratulated Htin Kyaw, an NLD member and aide to Aung San Suu Kyi, who will succeed Thein Sein as Myanmar’s president at the end of the month, according to a statement issued by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
‘People don’t want the dam’
Activists and politicians in Myanmar said the Myitsone Dam project poses a major challenge to the NLD government.
“The Myitsone Dam project is the biggest challenge for the new government,” said Ko Jimmy, who was a leader of the pro-democracy 88 Generation Students group, which has called on Chinese officials to consider local people’s interests when making their huge investments in Myanmar.
“People don’t want that dam because it is on the Irrawaddy River [which] belongs to the people who live along it,” he said. “If the new government lets Chinese companies start it again, there will be problems.”
Aung Moe Zaw, chairman of the Democratic Party for a New Society, a political party affiliated with the country’s broader democracy movement, believes the Myanmar people will reject the dam project, creating obstacles for the new government’s relations with China in other business deals.
“There will be some difficulties for the new government in doing something about this project,” he said. “The new government has to deal with its relationship with China and other projects with Chinese companies. But on the other hand, it has to think about the people’s rejection [of the project].”
Tu Jar, chairman of the Kachin State Democracy Party, said the new government should adhere to the wishes of the people when it comes to the dam because Myanmar is a democracy where people’s voices matter.
“The new government has to decide on this project based on the wishes of the people because it was elected by the people,” he said. “I have heard that the Chinese government has already built a good relationship with the NLD government, so I don’t think the two countries’ ties will be harmed even if the Myitsone Dam project starts again.”
Aung San Suu Kyi, whose NLD party won national elections last November, assured Chinese leaders at the time that she sought continued friendly relations between the two countries and welcomed Chinese investment in Myanmar, as long as investors won the trust of the Myanmar people. She has been one of the Myitsone Dam project’s most vocal opponents.
Chinese-backed companies are the largest foreign investors in Myanmar, but their heavy-handed tactics when it comes to exploiting Myanmar’s natural resources have sparked vehement public opposition.
Myanmar citizens not only oppose the Myitsone Dam project because of its environmental impact, but also because of its huge flooding area, dislocation of people living nearby, proximity to a geographical fault line, and unequal share of electricity output for Myanmar. Under the investment deal, about 90 percent of the electricity produced by the dam would go to southern China’s Yunnan province.
In June 2014, CPI cut off food assistance to at least two families who were among hundreds displaced by the project after they backed a 100-strong march from the commercial capital Yangon to the dam site, protesting against the resumption of work on the dam.
CPI also provided new homes for villagers who were displaced by the project, but La Yan, leader of Tanphaye village, whose residents were forcibly moved, said about 60 families had returned.
“We don’t know whether new government will stop us or not,” he said. “Some villagers have returned and are living in their [old] houses, and some of them have been taken away by authorities because they were living in their houses.”
The residents had found it difficult to remain in the new dwellings that CPI built for them elsewhere, because they leaked when it rained, he said.
About 3,000 people from four villages were moved to Aung Myin Thar village because of the dam project, but they don’t have farms there, he said.
“We can’t do anything in Aung Myin Thar,” he said. “Our houses and farms are in our villages. Our villages are the best place for us. Even people from Aung Myin Thar village have to work in Tanphaye village so they can farm for their survival.”
Groups of local residents in the Irrawaddy Delta and Thanlyin River (also known as Salween River) regions protested on Monday—International Rivers Day—for officials to suspend the Myitsone and other dam construction projects, according to a report by Eleven Myanmar media group. Some also collected signatures on petitions against the Myitsone project.
Reported by Thinn Thiri, Tin Aung Khine and Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.