President halts dam
Government backs down following widespread public protest over dam project at Myitsone
October 3 - 9, 2011
An artist’s impression of the completed Myitsone Dam project near the confluence of the Maykha and Malikha rivers in Kachin State. President U Thein Sein announced on September 30 that the project would be halted for at least the five years his government will be in office.
THE government has suspended work on the controversial Myitsone dam as a result of widespread public protest over its likely environmental and social impact.
The dam will be postponed until at least the end of the government’s five-year term, President U Thein Sein announced in a statement dated September 29.
Speaker of the Pyithu Hluttaw Thura U Shwe Mann read out the announcement to hluttaw representatives the following day.
“It has come to our knowledge that the public is concerned about the [dam] issue. We respect public’s desire as [our] government is a government elected by the public. We are obligated to address the public’s concerns and therefore in the time of our government we will stop constructing the Myitsone dam,” the statement said.
The 6000-megawatt Myitsone dam is part of a series of seven dams on the upper reaches of the Ayeyarwady River to be built by China Power Investments Corporation (CPI) at a total estimated cost of US$20 billion.
The Myitsone dam would displace about 20,000 people, of which more than 2000 have already been resettled, according to CPI.
In his statement, the president cited five specific concerns over the project: the natural beauty of Myitsone, a landmark of Kachin State and Myanmar, may be destroyed; villages of residents of the upper reaches of the Ayeyarwady River may be flooded and their livelihoods harmed; private rubber and teak plantations may be spoilt; the potential consequences of flooding or an earthquake in the dam region; and the environmental impact on the Ayeyarwady River.
Members of the Pyithu Hluttaw greeted the decision with applause, news agency DPA reported “This is not just about unity. This is getting us closer to peace and national reconciliation,” Daw Daui Bu, a Unity and Democracy Party of Kachin State representative from the constituency that encompasses the Myitsone, was quoted as saying.
However, work on seven other dams in the Maykha-Malikha basin, as well as hydro projects in other areas of the country, would continue “after thorough analysis”, the statement indicated.
“To acquire electric power required by the state, other hydropower projects that do not pose any danger will be carried out after thorough analysis. We would like to inform the hluttaw that we will agree to, accept and negotiate the agreements relating to the said project entered into with the People’s Republic of China, the neighbouring friendly country, without failing to honour what a friend should do for another,” the president said.
The statement also outlined the government’s reasons for pursuing large-scale hydropower projects over other methods of electricity generation.
The statement said electricity was “crucial” for establishing Myanmar as an industrialised country but nuclear power was “very sensitive”, while coal was “impossible” because of the country’s lack of coal resources. While Myanmar has significant natural gas reserves, “most operations were made by foreign investments so Myanmar cannot sufficiently use it and just gain some allocations”.
The statement said under the 30-year Electric Power Strategic Plan another 64 hydropower plants and three coal power plants with combined installed capacity of more than 40,000MW would be constructed. This includes eight projects on the upper reaches and basin of Maykha-Malikha and Ayeyarwady confluence.
Political analysts described the announcement as groundbreaking, as it showed that the new government was willing to make tough decisions based on the desires and concerns of the people.
“I think people really appreciate the president for this formal message, we’re welcome for that message, we’ve accept that the president and his government are listening the people’s voice in this period and I believe that government should have accepted by the people,” said U Kyaw Lin Oo, a columnist for The Voice.
Speaking after her meeting with Labour Minister U Aung Kyi on September 30, National League for Democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi described it as a “very good” development.
“In my opinion, listening to the voice of the people is very good. This is the thing every government should do. The government has to listen to the worries of people and solve these by thinking deeply,” she told reporters in Yangon.
U Khin Maung Swe, co-founder of National Democratic Force, said his party, which last week distributed an open letter calling for the project to be stopped, was “very happy” with the decision.
“According to [President U Thein Sein’s] statement, the Myitsone dam project is directly connected with the national interest. We can see clearly that he respects the public’s voice and desire more than the interests of individuals,” he said. “We can see that he is looking at the future. The president’s statement will support the reconciliation process. It’s likely this project is now finished for good.”
The Chinese embassy in Yangon did not respond to requests for an interview when contacted by The Myanmar Times last week. Coincidentally, the statement was dated September 29 – the same day China held a ceremony at Yangon’s Sedona Hotel, attended by Vice President Thiha Thura U Tin Aung Myint Oo, to celebrate its National Day.
Meanwhile, President U Thein Sein also touched on several issues in his statement, including political prisoners.
He said the Union Government and the governments of regions and states were working “in harmony” to encourage good administration, fair governance, the development of democracy and law and order, institute economic reforms and protect the environment.
He said some progress had been made on creating piece with ethnic armed groups, citing the signing of ceasefire agreement with the Union Wa State Army and Myanmar New National Democratic Army.
“The release of political prisoners will occur under the constitution. But some parties and national forces have conducted some activities … to create difficulties and damage the nation’s peace and stability.”
– Additional reporting by Yadana Htun and Myo Myo