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Diverse Groups Raise Concerns About Development Projects on the Irrawaddy River

By Burma Partnership  •  August 15, 2011

On 12 August, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi met with the regime’s minister of social welfare, relief, and resettlement, Aung Kyi, in Rangoon for the second time in less than a month. After the meeting the two issued a joint statement noting that they had agreed to cooperate and “to work in reciprocal basis by avoiding the contradicting attitudes.” However, it is clear that Daw Suu intends to continue to operate independently on behalf of the people of Burma, even where doing so contradicts the position of the regime. Just two days after the 12 August meeting Daw Suu defied the regime, traveling outside of Rangoon to meet supporters in Pegu and neighbouring Thanatpin despite the regime’s warning that such a trip could trigger “riots.”

Additionally, the day before her meeting with Aung Kyi, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi issued a letter expressing her opinion on one of the most contentious issues currently facing Burma, the issue of development projects, in particular dams along the Irrawaddy River. Daw Suu wrote that, “Today, the Irrawaddy is under threat” and argued that, “Ecological change to the Irrawaddy would impact all those whose lives are linked to the great river, from the ethnic peoples in the northernmost state of our country to the rice-growing communities of the delta.”

Days before Daw Suu’s appeal, the state-run newspaper, New Light of Myanmar, claimed that the Myitsone dam project at the source of the Irrawaddy River would have no negative impacts on the river. However, countless environmental organizations and ethnic groups have documented the detrimental effects that this project will have on the environment and on people’s livelihoods. In its most recent report, the Burma Environmental Working Group stated that, “As a result of dam-building hundreds of thousands of people will be left without their land, homes and livelihoods, and become internally displaced or migrate to neighboring countries…The dams will also decrease food security through their negative impact on fisheries and river bank farms…Many of the dams in Burma threaten internationally-recognized biodiversity yet almost none of the sites have been assessed for environmental impacts.” Last month, the Burma Rivers Network released an analysis of the environmental impact assessment conducted by China Power Investment Corporation, the state-owned company constructing the Myitsone dam. The assessment presented information regarding the impacts of the dam project on livelihoods, public health, safety and biodiversity of the area, and ultimately recommended that construction of the dam should be avoided. However, the assessment’s findings were brushed aside and construction has continued.

At a commemoration of the 23rd anniversary of Burma’s 1988 uprising in Bangkok, Hkawng Seng Pan of the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand said that, “These dams, including the Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy River will have very damaging social and environmental impacts, but local communities have not been consulted and have been unable to get information about the projects.” It is clear that dams have already had extremely damaging consequences for the Kachin people as the fighting which erupted in June, breaking a decades long ceasefire, has been attributed to the regime’s desire to gain control of the areas around the Taping and Shweli Dams. Speaking at the same event, Maw Bu Myar of the Karenni National Women’s Organization expressed similar sentiments stating that the “Karenni people already had a bitter experience with Lawpita, the first large-scale hydropower project ever built in Burma. What the Karenni people received from this hydropower dam was the arrival of thousands of Burmese troops, further forced relocation, forced labor, the destruction of biodiversity, threats to the indigenous people, water shortage, and extensive laying of landmine. And still 80% of Karenni population has no access to electricity today. This is why the Karenni people have serious concerns about the new proposed dams.”

Many of these groups have called for a halt to the construction of projects such as the Myitsone dam until thorough impact assessments have been conducted and made public, precautions are in place to ensure that there will not be negative impacts on the environment and people’s livelihoods, and local communities are able to participate in decision making processes.

In her letter, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi similarly expressed concern about these projects and appealed “to environmental experts, to conservationists and to lovers of nature, peace and harmony everywhere to join us in a campaign to create a worldwide awareness of the dangers threatening one of the most important rivers of Asia. Together we can find solutions to problems, ecological, economic, technical, and political, related to the Irrawaddy.”

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This post is in: Blog, Business and Human Rights, Environmental and Economic Justice

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