(October 8, 2011) In a move that surprised environmentalists and Chinese dam-builders alike, Burma’s president announced that the controversial Chinese-financed Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy River would be suspended. Now the Chinese government is threatening legal action if the rights and interests of its state enterprises aren’t protected.
In a move that came as a surprise to environmentalists and Chinese dam-builders alike, Burma’s president announced a week ago that the controversial Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy River would be suspended.
Myitsone was to be the biggest of seven Chinese dams on the Irrawaddy, costing $3.6 billion and providing 6000MW of power, 90% of which was for China. It was being built by state-owned China Power Investment Corp., in a deal with Asia World Company and the Burmese government.
The dam had become a focal point for local dissatisfaction with dependence on Chinese investment, which has been propping up Burma’s internationally isolated regime, and in return taking advantage of Burma’s natural resources. The Irrawaddy is central to Burmese culture, providing livelihoods for many who live along it. So damming it, in a project that is mainly for Chinese benefit, seemed like the latest in a long trend of resource deals that haven’t benefited the Burmese people.
But in the face of widespread public opposition, the government had pushed ahead with the dam: Electric Power Minister U Zaw Win promised recently that the government would “not back down just because environmental groups are against it.” That’s why President Thein Sein’s announcement comes as such a shock.
The Chinese government was clearly taken aback and angered by the sudden reversal. Lu Qizhou, president of China Power Investment Corp, stated: “I also learnt about this through the media and I was totally astonished.” Chinese government spokesman Hong Lei said: China “calls on the respective governments to protect Chinese companies’ legal rights and interests.” Now, Chinese officials are threatening legal action.
Why was the dam stopped? Thein Sein, eager to establish his reformist credentials, said that “we have to respect the will of the people as our government is elected by the people.” While it might be a stretch to claim the government is “elected” by the people, halting the dam’s construction may well have been a democratic gesture, like Thein Sein’s recent meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi – the democratic activist and opposition politician under house arrest until last November.
It may also have been a sign that the Burmese authorities, smarting from rising anti-Chinese sentiments among their countrymen, are shifting their alliances away from Beijing. The U.S. government has welcomed the decision to stop the dam and the Voice of America ran an editorial describing the decision as “a hopeful sign that greater political dialogue is developing in the once tightly controlled Southeast Asian nation.”
Other factors most certainly influenced the decision. The dam would flood an area the size of Singapore in Kachin State, close to the territory of the Kachin Independence Organization, a rebel group whose ceasefire with the government recently broke down. The reservoir would have displaced 10, 000 locals, and increased fighting with the KIO would make refugees of more.
It remains unclear whether the dam has been cancelled or merely postponed. President Thein Sein’s announcement that the dam’s construction would be stopped “during our current government” leaves open the possibility that it could be completed after he leaves office in 2015.
For now, the news has been met with a mix of delight and caution. It remains to be seen if this decision represents a profound change toward a more democratic and open government that protects the Burmese people’s rights to control their own economy and environment.