In an unprecedented move, Burma’s President Thein Sein yielded to a protest campaign Sept. 30, announcing cancellation of the controversial Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy River, already under construction by Chinese contractors. The Myistone Dam was to be the first of eight on the still-undammed Irrawaddy that were scheduled to be built in order to export power to China. The project has been opposed by a wide range of environmentalists, social activists, artists and others including Burma’s most prominent dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi. Just days before the decision to halt the project, dissident writer U Ludu Sein Win warned in the Rangoon-based journal Weekly Eleven: “The people are demanding to stop the project. If the righteous demands of the people are ignored and they continue the dam project, the people will defend the Irrawaddy with whatever means possible.”
Thousands of people have already been forcibly displaced from the dam’s catchment area, which is said to be as big as the island of Singapore, or four times the size of Manhattan The site is a few kilometers downstream from what is considered the birthplace of the Irrawaddy—the confluence of two smaller rivers, the N’mai and Mali—a place of spiritual significance for the Kachin ethnic group that populates the hills of northern Burma. Although the government signed a peace deal with a Kachin guerilla insurgency in 1993, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has recently taken up arms in the region again, with the dam a major grievance.
In 2009, a team of 80 Burmese and Chinese scientists and environmentalists produced a 945-page impact study of the Myitsone Dam for China Power Investment, the major construction contractor, concluding that the dam should never have been approved. The Burma Rivers Network, which represents affected communities along the Irrawady, obtained a copy of the study and made it public. However, the Ministry of Electric Power No. 1 said it had done its own environmental assessment and construction of the dam would go ahead. Just days before the cancellation was announced, the Ministry’s chief, Zaw Min, saiid: “We will finish this project within eight years, and I will answer ‘No’ to the question of the environmental groups who asked, ‘Will the project be stopped?'”
The Burma Rivers Network called cancellation of the Myitsone project a “great victory for the people of Burma.” The network is now demanding formal cancellation of the remaining seven dams slated for the Irradawy, and for the Chinese contractors to remove all equipment and personnel from the region. It is also calling for the displaced residents to be allowed to return to their lands,
Beijing responded to the cancellation by expressing concern for the legal rights of the project’s Chinese contractors—a rare display of public disagreement with its neighbor and close ally Burma. “[China] demands its companies to strictly follow the law of the countries they operate in but also calls on the respective governments to protect Chinese companies’ legal rights and interests,” said Hong Lei, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry.
The Myitsone project’s main contractors are China Power Investment Corporation, one of the big power producers in the People’s Republic, and Asia World Company, a Burmese group. Sinohydro, a China Power subsidiary and one of the world’s largest dam contractors, and another Chinese state-owned construction company, Gezhouba, are the primary subcontractors.
China has undertaken a major thrust of dam construction in Southeast Asia. Major projects include the Tasang Dam on Burma’s Salween River and the Kamchay Dam in Cambodia, on the Mekong tributary of that name. Major projects have already completed on the Mekong include one at Manwan in 1993, and the Dachaoshan in 2003, both in China’s Yunnan province. At least four more Mekong dams within Chinese territory are in planning. The Chinese government is also building or planning as many as 12 major dams on the Jinsha River, a major tributary of the Yangtze. More than 300,000 people will be displaced by these projects, numerous cultural sites will be inundated and river ecosystems irretrievably altered, according to environmentalist critics. (FT, Oct. 2; Asia Sentinel, The Guardian, Burma Rivers Network, Sept. 30, The Irrawady, Sept. 28; NYT, Sept. 22; The Irrawady, Sept. 16; The Irrawady, Sept. 12; International Rivers)