Burmese President Halts Chinese Dam at Irrawaddy Headwaters

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar (Burma), September 30, 2011 (ENS) – Myanmar President Thein Sein today announced that the Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy River would be halted “to respect the will of the people.”

President Sein told Parliament in a letter that he will suspend construction on the Myitsone Dam for the duration of his presidency.

Myanmar President Thein Sein (official photo)
Burma President Thein Sein, in leather jacket, meets with Steven Law, far left, and representatives from China Power Investment Corporation (Photo by Jade Land courtesy Burma Rivers Network)

Sein took office as President in March; previously he was the country’s Prime Minister from 2007 until 2011. Although he retired from the Army in 2010 to run for election, Sein is considered the first civilian President in almost 50 years.

Sein’s five-year term began in March, and he is entitled to run for election to a second term, so it is possible that dam construction could not resume until 2021.

The suspension is a complete reversal of policy on the part of the government of Burma, officially known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.

As recently as Monday, the country’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, within the Ministry of Information, banned journalists from writing about the controversial Myitsone hydropower project and even about the Irrawaddy River in general.

Beloved in Burmese culture, the Irrawaddy River arises at the confluence of the N’mai and Mali rivers in Kachin State. Both of these rivers flow from the Himalayan glaciers of northern Myanmar on its northeastern border with China.

The river flows south and empties into the Indian Ocean, creating the nine-armed Irrawaddy Delta.

The US$3.6 billion Myitsone hydropower project is designed to submerge the essential confluence of the Irrawaddy in Kachin State and create a reservoir the size of Singapore.

Tang Hpre, near the Myitsone Dam site on the Irrawaddy River (Photo by Rebecca W.)

Fierce criticisms have been raised about the environmental consequences of the project, which is being built by China Power Investment and will generate power to serve China.

The Myitsone Dam is strongly opposed by the Kachin People’s Organization, Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as many civil society organizations in Burma and their partner groups in China, Thailand and around the world.

Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi welcomed the suspension of the dam. She made the comment during a meeting with a government minister, Aung Kyi, at a government guesthouse in Rangoon. The two also discussed the release of political prisoners, protection of the Irrawaddy River and peace with ethnic armed groups.

President Sein has been considered a moderate and has not been opposed to interacting with Aung San Suu Kyi; he had a high-profile meeting with her in Naypyidaw on August 19.

The Burma Rivers Network is “encouraged” by news that President Sein plans to stop the construction of the Myitsone Dam, but concerned that it might not actually occur.

Location of the Myitsone dam project (Map by Uwe Dedering)

“If the Myitsone project is indeed canceled, this would be a great victory for the people of Burma, especially the brave villagers at the Myitsone site who stood up to the Burma Army and refused to make way for the project,” BNR said in a statement today.

Since civil war started in Kachin State on June 9, the Kachin Independence Army has banned the import of cement and other construction materials from China related to construction of the Irrawaddy Myitsone dam.

“China Power Investment is now in control of the Myitsone site and only their actions will confirm whether the dam is indeed suspended,” said the Burma Rivers Network.

“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 grassroots network.

BNR is urging the people of Burma “to demand an official declaration and pull-out of all personnel and equipment from the dam site by the project-holder, China Power Investment.”

The group is asking the government and China Power Investment to “immediately cancel” the other six mega-dams planned on the Irrawaddy source rivers.

“Building these six dams will also cause irreparable environmental destruction, unpredictable water surges and shortages, and inflict social and economic damage to the millions who depend on the Irrawaddy,” says the Burma Rivers Network. “Thousands of Kachin villagers will be forced to relocate.”

Even if the Myitsone dam is cancelled, the group says its campaign to stop the six other hydropower dams will continue.

Seven mega-dams are planned by China for the Irrawaddy River and its two source rivers. The majority of power produced will be exported to China.

“The other six mega-dams on the N’mai and Mali rivers, planned for export of electricity to China, will have the same effects as the Myitsone dam,” warns the Burma Rivers Network.

For now, the group awaits an official statement by China Power Investment announcing the suspension of the Myitsone dam, and urges closure of the dam construction camps and the return to their homes of the people displaced to the Myitsone dam relocation camp.

International Rivers, based in Berkeley, California, called President Sein’s decision “a stunning move.”

Grace Mang, program coordinator at International Rivers, said, “The suspension of the Myitsone Dam is a great success for civil society groups in Burma and throughout the world.”

International Rivers is supporting the Burmese NGOs through technical analysis, corporate research and international awareness-raising.

“The decision shows that dam builders can no longer rely on dictatorial governments to push through projects that are rejected by their populations,” said Mang. “China Power Investment Corporation and other dam builders should now reconsider other planned projects on the Irrawaddy and Salween rivers.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.