About 100 activists in Myanmar have launched a two-month march from the commercial capital Yangon to the site of a controversial China-backed dam project in northern Kachin state to press the government to permanently cancel the venture.
They began the 750-mile (1,200-kilometer) walk on Sunday, hoping to pass through villages, towns, and cities to highlight what they believe to be compelling reasons to scrap the mammoth Myitsone Dam project on the Irrawaddy River, said the League of Ex-Political Prisoners, which organized the march.
President Thein Sein suspended the U.S. $3.6 billion project after he took over the helm of the country in 2011 following decades of military rule, but did not cancel it for good.
Amid a push by the dam's Chinese developers to restart work on the project—which environmentalists say would submerge dozens of villages, displace more than 10,000 people, and destroy the area’s ecology—nongovernmental organizations believe the venture could resume under a new government after the 2015 elections.
Activists said they would speak to the people about the impact of the project on the environment during their stopover in places such as Bagan, Mandalay, Magway, Shwebo, Moenyin, and Myitkyina, the riverside capital of Kachin state.
The trip is to conclude at the dam site in Tan Phae village—the confluence of the Maykha and Malikha rivers.
"We will give speeches in Mandalay on April 12, a day before the water festival," Ye Htut Khaung, one of the organizers, told RFA's Myanmar Service.
"We will also give speeches regarding Myitsone Dam in Bagan and in Magway cities," he said. "When we arrive at the Myitsone Dam site, members from this group will brief the local people about the environmental issues [surrounding the project]."
Ye Htut Khaung also called for the expulsion from Myanmar of the project developer state-owned China Power Investment (CPI) company and wanted people relocated from the mine site to be allowed to return, the Mizzima news agency reported.
The dam project, which would provide most of its electricity to China, had before its suspension provoked massive public outcry over the widespread flooding and deforestation it would cause.
The trip by the activists, which would normally take three days by car, will last about 70 days, organizers said.
CPI has said it is interested in restarting the project, raising concerns among local residents.
Li Guanghua, a top official of the Myanmar subsidiary of CPI, had in December promised to work transparently with Myanmar if the project is resumed.
Maung Maung Oo, a member of the Mandalay-based environmental group Green Activities, told the Irrawaddy online journal last week that whether the dam is constructed or not, environmental damage to areas along the river has already begun.
He cited recent deforestation, erosion of the riverbed, and reduced fish stocks due to industrial development on the river.
“Even though the dam is still not there, the destruction of the river is terrible. If there’s a dam, the situation would be a lot worse than now, because the dam would reduce the flow of the water,” he said.
“The Myitsone project must be totally stopped," said U Ohn, vice president of the Yangon-based Forest Resource Environment Development and Conservation Association, according to Irrawaddy.
"If the project resumes, the environment in the Myitsone area and along the Irrawaddy River will be at risk.”
Thein Sein criticized
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in January slammed President Thein Sein for leaving the future of the Myitsone Dam unresolved, accusing him of passing the buck to the country’s next leaders by suspending the project until the end of his term.
“By … postponing the project by five years, this means the next government will have to take care of it,” she said in an interview with RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“It is as if they are saying, ‘It is not our duty. We are not responsible for this,’” said Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy is expected to be a key contender in the 2015 polls.
She said the country’s next government would be saddled with responsibility for deciding on the project because of the failure of Thein Sein’s government to settle its future for good.
If her party wins the 2015 polls, it will have “no other choice” but to deal with Chinese investors to resolve the issue “because the current government has left it hanging,” she said.
Reported by RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.