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Burmese President Halts Myitsone Dam Project

Originally appeared in The Irrawaddy

September 30, 2011

Burmese President Thein Sein has called for a suspension of work on the controversial Myitsone dam project, in response to a mounting public outcry over the project, which critics say threatens the source of the Irrawaddy River.

Thein Sein said in a letter to Parliament on Friday that construction of the 6,000-megawatt hydropower dam in Kachin State should be suspended because the project is against the will of the people and lawmakers.

Map of Irrawaddy Dams (Photo: Burma Rivers Network)

In the letter, the president explained that the project has caused much public concern since it can destroy the natural landscape of the Myitsone area and have an adverse effect on the livelihood of the people living downstream of the dam on the Irrawaddy River.“Our government, being elected by the people, has to take great consideration of public opinion. Accordingly, we have an obligation to respond to the public concern with seriousness. Therefore, we will suspend the Myitsone project during the term of our government,” he said in the letter.

The US $3.6 billion project has drawn widespread condemnation from environmental groups and the Burmese public, as concerns about the potentially disastrous impact of the dam on local communities and the Irrawaddy, Burma’s largest river, continue to grow.

Under an agreement signed in 2006 between the Chinese and Burmese governments, China’s state-owned China Power Investment (CPI) corporation, in a joint venture with the Burmese Ministry of Electric Power No. 1 and Asia World, a Burmese-owned conglomerate, began construction work on the project last year.

Ninety percent of the electricity generated by the massive project, which has already displaced around 12,000 people, will be exported to China.

It remains unclear what kind of negotiations Thein Sein made with the Chinese government before the announcement was made, but he said in the letter that his government will continue to negotiate and carry out other agreements related to the Memorandum of Understanding on the Myitsone project without hampering friendly relations with the Chinese government.

News of the decision was greeted by opponents of the dam as a welcome development.

“We welcome the president’s decision, which reflects what he promised in his inaugural speech—that he will listen to the voice of the people,” said Myat Thu, a democracy activist in Rangoon who has been organizing a nationwide signature campaign calling for the scrapping of the project.

The Myitsone dam, located near the confluence of the Malikha and Maykha rivers at the source of the Irrawaddy, is part of a seven-dam cascade that represents a $20 billion investment by China, according to the International Rivers Network, an independent environmental group.

The dam’s reservoir will submerge important historical and cultural sites and inundate approximately 766 square kilometers of forested area, according to the group, which also said that it will cause irreversible damage to Burma’s key river system as well as to downstream rice paddy communities.

Burma Rivers Network, an environmental group, called for continued pressure on the Burmese government and CPI to immediately cancel the six other dams planned on the Irrawaddy source rivers, which will have the same devastating impacts on the country.

“Until the Chinese project holders publicly declare their cancellation of the Myitsone dam and pull out from the dam-site, we must assume the project is going ahead,” said Ah Nan, assistant coordinator of the group in a statement released on Friday.

The project has also exacerbated ethnic tensions in Burma’s restive north. The ethnic Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has vowed to resist the project in any form since early this year, when it warned the Chinese government that the project could spark a civil war and should be canceled.

The warning was followed by deadly armed clashes between the KIA and Burmese government troops near two China-run hydropower plants in Kachin State’s Bhamo Township.

La Nan, a spokesman for the KIA, described the president’s move as a result of intense public pressure, but declined to declare it a victory.

“We will wait and see, since it remains uncertain whether the project will be completely canceled or not,” he said.

View the original article here.

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

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