Chinese Investor Assures Transparency if Myanmar Restarts Dam Project

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A map showing the location of the Myitsone dam in Kachin state.
A map showing the location of the Myitsone dam in Kachin state.

A Chinese company involved in the Myitsone dam project in Myanmar that has been suspended gave an assurance Thursday that it would be transparent in all its dealings on the controversial venture if the government decides to proceed with it.

“We will inform the people about everything we do on this project,” said Li Guanghua, a top official of the Myanmar subsidiary of Chinese Power Investment Corporation (CPI), as he pushed for the restart of the U.S. $3.6 billion project on the Irrawaddy River.

“The current government was elected by the people and I hope that the government that was elected by the people will make the right decision,” said Li, speaking at a press conference in Yangon.

Li, who heads CPI’s subsidiary Upstream Ayeyawady Confluence Basin Hydropower Co. Ltd (ACHC), said that ACHC would “continue working on the project with the Myanmar government's approval” and, if allowed to proceed, would maintain public transparency to assuage public concerns.

He did not provide details about how ACHC would ensure that the public remain informed about the dam’s progress.

Myanmar President Thein Sein suspended the Myitsone dam on Sept. 30, 2011 months after taking power from the former military junta, pledging that the project would be halted for the duration of his five-year term.

The project, which was slated to provide most of its electricity to China, had provoked massive public outcry over the widespread flooding and deforestation the dam would cause, as well as the displacement of 10,000 ethnic Kachin villagers.

CPI has said it is interested in restarting the project, raising concerns among residents that the 6,000-megawatt dam could be restarted following the country’s next general elections in 2015—for which Thein Sein is not expected to run.

China’s ambassador to Myanmar Yang Houlan has also raised the idea, saying the project could help support the development of industry in Myanmar.

Thursday’s press conference was joined by representatives of ethnic groups and residents affected by the planned dam, many of whom have said they want to see the project scrapped and CPI offices in the country closed permanently.

Also in attendance were members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, who told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the project should only proceed if it can adequately balance the need for developing the nation with the concerns of the people.

More than 300 households from Tanphye, Padan and Myitsone villages were relocated for the project, and villagers have not been allowed to return during the suspension.

Relocated residents have complained that compensation they’ve received is too low and the land they have been allocated is not suitable for planting crops and rearing livestock, hurting their livelihoods.

Political motivation

Thein Sein’s decision to suspend the dam was seen as a strong signal of reform by western observers on the part of his nominally civilian government, but some have questioned whether the move was purely symbolic.

Months before the announcement, the Myanmar military launched an offensive against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), turning much of Kachin state and part of Shan state—including areas surrounding the proposed dam site—into a war zone.

In the ensuing clashes, several key bridges along the route CPI had been using to bring dam-building equipment to the Myitsone dam site from China were destroyed, severely disrupting the project.

The Irrawaddy online journal has cited Kachin critics of Thein Sein’s decision to suspend the dam as saying that the move was merely “a clever ploy to take credit for the dam’s delay, which they say was inevitable once the fighting resumed.”

In an editorial in China’s English language official Global Times on September, People’s Daily editor Ding Gang said that environmental concerns are not the main obstacle to restarting the dam project.

“[I]n reality, the key is the conflict between the military and the Kachin Independence Army that affects the peace process in north Myanmar,” he said.

The Kachin are in the midst of peace negotiations with the Myanmar government, which is pushing for an umbrella cease-fire agreement with armed ethnic groups as part of a bid for national reconciliation, but clashes between the KIA and military have occurred as recently as this week, according to the Kachin News Group.

Reported by Thiha Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.





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