Burma dam: Why Myitsone plan is being halted
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
"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
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
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
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."
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