More than 8,000 residents of Waingmaw township in Myanmar’s Kachin state protested on Monday to call for a complete halt to the controversial Myitsone dam project, urging government action ahead of a visit to Beijing at the end of this month by national leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Construction of the Chinese-backed U.S. $3.6 billion hydropower project on the Irrawaddy River in Kachin state, begun in 2009, has stalled since 2011 because of concerns over potential flooding and other environmental impacts and anger that 90 percent of its electricity would be exported to China.
Suspension of the project has dismayed China, which has been pushing Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy government to allow the hydropower project to resume, arguing that Chinese companies have already invested heavily in it.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been tight lipped on the fate of the project, but said in mid-March that it is important for her government to uphold investment projects approved by previous administrations or risk being perceived by investors as unreliable. Others have raised concerns that Myanmar would have to pay large compensation to China if the project is scrapped.
Despite government assurances that it will act responsibly in making any final decision on whether to resume work on the dam, protesters living down river from the dam site on Monday demanded the project be brought to an immediate halt.
“We have been protesting like this for eight or nine years now,” a local resident named Lu Yar told a reporter from RFA’s Myanmar Service. “I wonder if the government can really continue to ignore this kind of opposition.”
“We’re now demanding that they stop this Myitsone project for good,” Lu Yar said.
Protests will continue
Protests and other forms of opposition will continue until the project is finally shut down, protester and township resident Daung Kun said, pointing to widespread fears of catastrophic flooding in Kachin if the dam is built and fails.
“People say that the Myitsone project will provide electricity, but we think it will be more like a time bomb that could someday kill and wipe out people in Kachin state without a shot being fired,” he said.
In mid-February, some 10,000 people in Kachin—activists, political party leaders, Buddhist monks, civil society groups, and other local residents—staged a massive protest in state capital Mitkyina demanding that the project be finally closed.
In recent weeks, in the run-up to Aung San Suu Kyi’s expected visit to Beijing to attend China’s Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, groups of economists, experts, and religious leaders have gone public with their opposition to the dam.
Developing countries like Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia must rely on foreign investors to develop hydropower sites, but laws and regulations governing hydropower projects tend to be weak in these countries, where attracting investment is a main task of their governments, experts say.
Reported by Elizabeth Janmar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann. Written in English by Richard Finney.