Civil society organizations and local residents have called on the Myanmar government to cancel the U.S. $3.6 billion Chinese-financed Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy River in Kachin state, put on hold in 2011 following public opposition to the controversial hydropower project.
More than 1,000 environmentalists and villagers urged officials to abandon plans for the 6,000-megawatt dam during a ceremony on Sunday at the confluence of the Mali and N'Mai rivers to mark the seventh anniversary of the temporary suspension of the project by former President Thein Sein.
The two rivers that converge in Myitsone outside Kachin state’s capital Myitkyina form the source of the Irrawaddy River, which traverses Myanmar from north to south.
The dam project was suspended amid protests over its enormous flooding area and detrimental environmental impacts as well as anger over the fact that 90 percent of its electricity was to be exported to China.
Local residents said they are worried about the government restarting the project because no one is allowed to enter the area, and employees from the Chinese development company have convinced some villagers that the dam should be built.
“Although it is said that the Myitsone Dam project has been suspended, nobody can go into this project area, even into the farms that are close to it,” resident Hsai Naw told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“We love the Irrawaddy River and value Myitsone,” he said. “That’s why we don’t want this dam project at all.”
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.
In December 2017, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, the leader of Myanmar’s Catholic Church, told congregants during an evening prayer service at a church in Kachin state’s Tanphaye village that all citizens should object to the dam project because it could destroy the country's economy and social fabric.
“This project shouldn’t be completed,” he said at the time. “It can destroy not only Kachin state, but also the entire country.”
China is eager to see the Myanmar government allow construction of the dam — one of the largest Chinese infrastructure projects approved by a former military junta that ruled the country until 2011.
State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, who as opposition leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party was one of the dam’s most vocal opponents, assured Chinese leaders after the NLD won the 2015 general elections that Myanmar was willing to come up with an appropriate resolution that would suit both countries.
Myanmar has also come under pressure from China to resume construction plans on the stalled project as the Southeast Asian country becomes more economically dependent on its larger neighbor to fund infrastructure development and as its relations with the West deteriorate amid criticism of the treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state.
Myanmar also needs China’s cooperation in peace negotiations with ethnic armed insurgents who operate along its northern borders with China in Kachin and Shan states.
But both sides have yet to reach an agreement on a solution to the dam project, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s government appears to have let the issue slide to the back burner to avoid any harm to its economic relations with China.
Reported by Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.