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By Rachel Harvey BBC South East Asia Correspondent
In a rare concession, the Burmese government has suspended a long planned and highly controversial hydroelectric dam project in the face of growing public opposition.
The campaign against the construction of the Myitsone dam brought together conservationists, scholars, and political activists including Aung San Suu Kyi, and had become a serious test for the new civilian-led, military-backed government.
Myitsone was being developed jointly by the state Myanmar Ministry of Electric Power, the privately-owned Asia World Company of Burma and the China Power Investment Corporation.
Scheduled for completion in 2019, the dam would have created a reservoir some 766 sq km (296 square miles) – an area slightly bigger than Singapore. The vast bulk of the electricity generated – some reports say as much as 90% – was destined for export to China.
Myitsone had become something of a cause celebre for those who fear China’s growing influence in Burma. Beijing, exploiting the void created by international sanctions, has moved rapidly to harvest Burma’s rich natural resources.
They are flooding, quite literally, the birthplace of Burma. That’s why so many are opposed.”
Grace Mang International Rivers
“There’s a widespread perception that China has taken advantage of Burma’s situation over these past decades,” according to Thant Myint-U, author of Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia.
“Burma can benefit enormously from Chinese trade and investment, but there is almost bound to be a backlash if Chinese projects are undertaken with zero transparency and little concern for their impact on local communities.”
Myitsone is, or rather was, being built at the head of the Irrawaddy – the confluence of the Mali and N’Mai rivers – in Kachin state. It’s an area of rich biodiversity, less than 100km from a tectonic fault line. Or to put it another way, Myitsone was a huge construction project in an environmentally sensitive, earthquake-prone area where armed ethnic minority Kachin fighters are battling the Burmese army.
The Kachin Independence Organisation saw the dam as a direct threat to its people and their livelihoods. Thousands of local villagers have already been resettled to make way for the dam; thousands more would have been forced to move as the project developed. But there was no public consultation.
The potential environmental impact is harder to gauge. There is no legal obligation in Burma to conduct any assessment, though the China Power Investment Corporation (CPI) did commission a study by Chinese and Burmese experts. The report has not been made public, but parts have been leaked to activists. It is understood to have recommended two smaller dams be built instead of one, but that advice was ignored.
According to Grace Mang, from lobby group International Rivers, the CPI instead said it would study the impact of the dam during its construction. “The whole point of conducting an impact assessment is to prevent or mitigate impacts before they occur,” she said. “If it’s found that the environmental or social impact is unacceptable, then the project shouldn’t be going ahead.”
In the event, it may have been cultural and political calculations that led to the project being suspended. The Myitsone dam resonated well beyond the conservationist or Kachin communities because of its location, at the birthplace of the Irrawaddy.
“The Irrawaddy is the Burmese people’s heritage, lifeline and civilisation,” said Aung Zaw, editor of the Irrawaddy news website. “Everyone feels attached to it. That’s the reason the campaign [against the dam] gained such support.”
Outside Burma, activists from both environmental and human rights groups threw their weight behind the campaign. As Grace Mang put it: “They are flooding, quite literally, the birthplace of Burma. That’s why so many are opposed.”
Despite the fact that the man responsible for the project, Burma’s minister of electric power, Zaw Min, only recently vowed that “we will never back down”, other government figures began to waver. A diplomatic source based in Rangoon told the BBC: “There are signs of increasing unease among some ministers in Nay Pyi Taw. Maybe some political leaders do not want their legacy to be one of irreparable damage to the Irrawaddy.”
This is, after all, a government that has been trying hard to convince a sceptical public at home and abroad that it is different from its military predecessor and serious about reform. Speaking ahead of the announcement that the Myitsone project was to be put on ice, Burmese author Thant Myint-U put forward the view that the dam could be a perfect opportunity for the new administration to prove itself. “Suspending work on the dam would be the best sign so far that the new government is serious about taking popular concerns into account.”
It seems Burmese President Thein Sein agrees. The government will point to this decision as concrete evidence of its willingness to listen and to work in the interests of the people. Its critics will interpret the move as a cynical piece of public relations which can easily be reversed – the Myitsone project has, after all, only been suspended, not cancelled.
Aung Zaw thinks the suspension of the Myitsone project may encourage Burma’s long-suffering activists.
“It is a bold decision to stand up against China but there are several dams [due to] be built along the Irrawaddy,” he said.
“What about other mega-projects with China, including the gas pipeline? I predict there will be more campaigns in the future.”