The Burmese government on Friday suspended plans to build a massive dam on the Irrawaddy River in response to a public outcry over the controversial project.
The decision to halt construction of the U.S. $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam, ordered by President Thein Sein, is the latest signal of reform on the part of the nominally civilian government that took power in March.
"We have to respect the will of the people as our government is elected by the people," Thein Sein said in a message to parliament in the capital Naypyidaw.
"We have a responsibility to solve the worries of the people, so we will stop construction of the Myitsone Dam during our current government," said Thein Sein, who was chosen to head the government for a five-year term after polls in November last year.
Critics have said the 3,600 megawatt Chinese-backed project, located in Northern Kachin state, would submerge dozens of villages, displace more than 10,000 people, and destroy the area’s ecology.
Elected member of parliament Aye Maung, who was present during the announcement, said Thein Sein’s words received a hearty response.
“All of the MPs are very relieved and happy, especially the MPs from Kachin state,” he said.
“One MP from Kachin state who lives near the Myitsone was so happy that he said it was as if his dead mother had returned to life.”
Earlier this year, the Kachin Independence Organization broke a 17-year ceasefire agreement after warning the government that it would fight to block the project undertaken by China Power Investment Corp.
MP Kyi Yaw Oo from the Kachin National Unity Party said he had prepared to speak out against the dam project in parliament.
"I am so glad about his message … We shed tears because we did not expect this. We are extremely grateful for the help to us—saving the Irrawaddy by vetoing the plan."
Another MP Phone Myint Aung, who was also present during the announcement, called the Myitsone “one of the major 30-year projects under [former military junta leader] General Than Shwe.”
“This obviously shows the ideas and decisions from the previous and current governments are different."
The announcement also drew positive reactions from the public, including the country’s monk and dissident communities.
"This is the very first time the new government has listened to and followed the public voice. We welcome the new government's decision and are proud,” said Dharma Thiri, leader of the International Burmese Monks.
“We also urge to the government to continue to listen to the public voice on important steps such as the release of political prisoners and ending the civil war [with ethnic insurgents]."
Tun Myint Aung, a leader of the 88 Generation Student group, said his organization was relieved to hear of the decision.
"Everybody is happy as we all were so worried and concerned [over the plan]. We 88 Students welcome this decision—it is the right decision. Not only during Thein Sein’s term in office, but all future governments should maintain and protect the Irrawaddy,” he said.
“We also would like to urge the government to stop civil war against the ethnic groups and to release all political prisoners so that the citizens of Burma will continue to be as happy as they have been today."
Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who vehemently opposed the project and launched a signature campaign against it, told reporters in Rangoon that the decision was welcome.
“It’s good to listen to the people’s voice. That’s what all governments should do,” she said, following a third meeting with Labor Minister Aung Kyi at a government guesthouse in the city.
Aung San Suu Kyi had warned in a recent appeal statement that fault lines in the vicinity of the dams and the sheer immensity of the reservoir raised the specter of "horrendous devastation in the event of an earthquake."
Another downside to such a project is the "serious problem" from a weakened flow of the waters of the lrrawaddy—the intrusion of salt water into the delta, the 66-year-old Nobel laureate had said.
Despite the halt in the project, Aung Wah of the Kachin Social Network said the government needs to do more to protect the Irrawaddy from ecological devastation.
"[T]here are another six mega dams under construction or planned on the N’mai and Mali rivers which will export electricity to China and will have the same effect as the Myitsone dam,” he said referring to the two rivers that form the headwaters of the Irrawaddy.
“They must continue to listen to the public opinion."
The Burma Rivers Network, comprising groups representing dam-affected communities, also called on the government to immediately cancel the other six dams planned on the Irrawaddy source rivers, which it said “will have the same devastating impacts on the country.”
The organization urged the people of Burma to “demand an official declaration and pull-out of all personnel and equipment from the dam site by the project-holder, China Power Investment.”
A recently leaked environmental assessment jointly commissioned by the Burmese and Chinese authorities warned about the impact of a widely-dammed Irrawaddy.
"The fragmentation of the Irrawaddy River by a series of dams will have serious social and environmental problems not only upstream of dams but also far downstream in the coastal area," the assessment notes, adding that “there is no need” for a huge dam such as the Myitsone to be constructed on the waterway.
Police last week arrested a man who held a solo protest in front of the Chinese embassy in Rangoon and also shut down a rally this week by a group of people demanding and an end to the Myitsone project and the release of political prisoners.
In Kachin state, ethnic rebels have clashed with government troops in recent weeks near the Myitsone Dam site. And in August, state media accused insurgents of shooting dead seven people, including civilian workers at a different Chinese-run dam.
In April a series of bomb blasts at the Myitsone Dam site destroyed cars and buildings and left one man wounded.
The decision to halt the dam project represents a rare reversal in Burma where Thein Sein’s government, made up largely of retired army generals, replaced the country’s longtime military junta leadership.
Burma’s government has launched a series of reform initiatives in recent months, including an invitation to armed ethnic groups to hold peace talks and planned changes to Burma's currency system.
There has been persistent speculation this week about an imminent release of several hundred political prisoners.
The speculation came as Burma’s Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin told the U.N. General Assembly in New York that an unspecified number of prisoners would be released under an early amnesty program.
But the minister did not say they would be political prisoners.
Rights groups believe there are about 2,000 political prisoners in Burma, although government officials dispute the figure.
Reported by RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw and Khin Maung Soe. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.