Religious leaders from the Buddhist, Catholic and Muslim communities in Myanmar have joined the chorus of opposition to the Myitsone Dam, a Chinese-backed hydropower project on the Irrawaddy River, as Aung San Su Kyi’s government faces a decision on the U.S. $3.6 billion project.
Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to travel to Beijing at the end of this month to attend China’s Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. She and her ministers have been tightlipped on the fate of the dam in Kachin State, which was suspended in 2011, but they face strong Chinese pressure to resume construction.
The Venerable U Seindita, a Buddhist monk from Asia Light Monastery and promoter of interfaith harmony in Myanmar, said the Myitsone dam project should be cancelled permanently.
“With regard to Myitsone dam, former president U Thein Sein promised to suspend the construction during his five years tenure and he actually made it happen,” he said.
“Now, the National League for Democracy (NLD) government should be trying to cancel the project permanently. They should not postpone the decision to cancel this project and pass this project on to the next government,” the monk added.
“I strongly appeal to the NLD government to work on canceling this project permanently.”
Construction of the 6,000-megawatt Myitsone Dam started in 2009 but was put on hold two years later by former President Thein Sein and his military-backed administration because of widespread opposition to its enormous flooding area and detrimental environmental impact, as well as anger over the fact that 90 percent of its electricity would be exported to China.
The decision dismayed China, which has since been pushing Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling NLD government to allow the hydropower project to resume, arguing that Chinese companies have already invested heavily in it.
'No immediate benefits'
Leaders of the Hindu, Muslim and Catholic communities agreed with the Buddhist leader.
“It is evident that people across Myanmar overwhelmingly oppose this Chinese-funded Myitsone dam project,” said Hindu religious leader Hla Htun.
“I would like to appeal to the national leaders: You cannot achieve development without cooperation from the people. So, when people show their opposition to this project, the leaders should respect their opinions.”
Al-Haji U Nyunt Maung Shein, president of Burma's Islamic Religious Affairs Council, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that “the government should not be procrastinating when people already have shown their opposition to this project.”
“The State Counselor, the de facto leader of the country, has said the government will reveal the details of the project agreements to the public. But so far, she hasn’t done anything about it,” he said, referring to Aung San Suu Kyi.
“This project gives no immediate benefits. What’s more, the new generations will suffer from continuing of this project. I think it is the best for the country to cancel this project,” he added.
Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, a Catholic leader, marked the traditional New Year in Myanmar on April 17 with video message appeal to the authorities to cancel the project.
The Cardinal also sent letters this week calling for a halt to the Myitsone project to Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, Military Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and send a letter with the same plea, written in Chinese, to the Chinese government.
In mid-February, some 10,000 people in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state-- activists, leaders from Kachin political parties, religious leaders, local civil society groups, Buddhist monks, and local residents--staged a massive protest in the state capital Myitkyina demanding the complete halt of the hydropower project.
In rare public comments about the sensitive issue, Aung San Su Kyi said in mid-March that it is important for her government to uphold investment projects approved by previous administrations or risk being perceived by investors as “not reliable and volatile.”
She urged the public to be open-minded about mega-projects such as the Myitsone Dam and assured them that the government would make decisions responsibly.
Reported by Htet Arkar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Paul Eckert.