China "Going Out"

Pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi urges Burma to save the Irrawaddy

(August 16, 2011) Democracy icon takes on China-funded dam project in Burma.

By Lisa Peryman for Probe International

Burma’s pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, has called for a reassessment of Burma’s massive 6,000 MW Irrawaddy Myitsone dam project.

In a statement released on August 11, Aung San Suu Kyi urged environmental experts and conservationists to join her in a campaign to find a solution that would save the Irrawaddy — the country’s largest river and most important commercial waterway — from irreversible damage.

Under the current plan, the US$3.6 billion dam project which is being financed and built by the Chinese state-owned power company called China Power Investment Corporation, will displace an estimated 12,000 people from 63 villages in the surrounding area, submerge irreplaceable cultural heritage sites and threaten the precious biodiversity of the Mizoram-Manipur-Kachin rainforest region. Its location, 100 kilometers from a major fault line, also poses a risk to river basin inhabitants in the event that an earthquake weakens the dam structure or causes landslides in the Myitsone’s reservoir — expected to match the size of New York City on completion. Dam reservoirs are also known to trigger earthquakes with their weight and infiltration of water.

Under construction since 2009, the Myitsone Dam has faced violent opposition from the local Kachin population — the most affected group by displacement — culminating in a series of bomb blasts last year at the project site.

“Since the commencement of the Myitsone project, the perception, long held by the Kachin people, that successive Burmese governments have neglected their interest has deepened,” Aung San Suu Kyi said in her letter, made public by the U.S.-based environmental advocacy group, International Rivers. “While recognizing that large sums of money have already been spent on the realization of the project we would urge that in the interests of both national and international harmony, concerned parties should reassess the scheme and cooperate to find solutions that would prevent undesirable consequences and thus allay the fears of all who are anxious to protect the Irrawaddy.”

Chinese state investment in Burma (also known as Myanmar) is growing and the Myitsone hydroelectric dam and smaller projects are seen as a way to showcase its hydropower technology. But, says a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, just as China’s ambitions to export high speed rail technology have been tripped up by a recent accident, the quality of its dam-building techniques are also being questioned.

Many of Burma’s major hydropower projects are backed by Chinese companies and are slated for construction in the country’s volatile border regions where fighting between anti-government, ethnic minority militias and the Burmese army is escalating.

In fact, in eastern Burma, three Chinese engineers and an interpreter working on the controversial Tasang Dam were released earlier this month after they were kidnapped by an unidentified armed group on May 9.

The Shan State Army (SSA), one of the principal armed groups operating in Burma’s largest state, said it had negotiated with the militia thought to have captured the workers for their release —  all four men were working on behalf of China Three Gorges Project Corporation (CTGPC) on the Tasang Dam. Currently underway on Burma’s Salween River, the Tasang — expected to top even China’s Three Gorges Dam in scale — has been dogged by accusations that it is responsible for the displacement of thousands of Shan locals. The militia group said they did not want money in exchange for the captives, they just wanted the dam cancelled.

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