Environmentalists and activists hope Myanmar will keep its promise to suspend construction of a controversial hydroelectric dam in the northern Kachin State, despite calls by the Chinese government for talks over the decision.
In a surprising move, on 30 September, President Thein Sein announced that construction of the dam, a project between the government and the state-owned China Power Investment Corporation (CPI), would be suspended during his presidential term. The decision was seen as a victory for the people who battled to stop the dam over concerns about the environment and millions of livelihoods linked to the Ayeyarwady River.
"The president knows the Myitsone Dam [project] is against the will of the people," Bauk Ja, Kachin activist and member of the National Democratic Force party, told IRIN. "So, he won't let it resume in his tenure, whatever the pressures from China."
"It's amazing," said Win Min, a Myanmar scholar now living in the United States. "The president shows that he cares more about the people who will suffer from the impact of the dam than China or economic interests."
But opponents of the dam urged continued vigilance. CPI workers and equipment were still on the ground, said Ah Nan, a spokeswoman for the Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG) and assistant coordinator of Burma Rivers Network. There is also speculation that the Myitsone Dam project will be replaced by the construction of two smaller dams, as recommended in an environmental impact study by Myanmar and Chinese scientists.
"Only [CPI's] actions will confirm whether the dam is indeed suspended," she said.
Thein Sein, who began a five-year presidential term in March, informed Parliament of his decision in a letter. His phrasing amazed many Burmese, who experienced decades during which the government ignored public concerns.
"As our government is elected by the people, it is to respect the people's will. We have the responsibility to address public concerns in all seriousness," Thein Sein said in his letter. "So construction of Myitsone Dam will be suspended in the time of our government."
The dam, with a flooding area larger than Singapore, is in Kachin State just 1.6km below the confluence of two rivers, an area known as Myitsone, which is the beginning of the Ayeyarwady River. The project would have forced more than 15,000 people in 60 villages to relocate, KDNG estimated.
Some observers believe the president suspended construction of the widely opposed dam not only to prevent public anger from boiling over, but also to position the country positively in upcoming regional meetings.
"The halting is designed to nip another round of public discontent-driven popular protests, especially on the eve of a trip by the Indonesian [foreign minister] to assess the [country's] ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] chair bid," said Maung Zarni, a Myanmar research fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Some point to the decision as one of several signs that the government is heeding the concerns of its people. Thein Sein's August meeting with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, for example, was applauded internationally, and Thein Sein has publicly acknowledged poverty as a problem in Myanmar.
"It seems that the president and some cabinet ministers are more open than others and willing to bring about a gradual change," Win Min said.
But he urged caution, too. He said the administration was motivated by a desire to improve its international standing, particularly in its bid for the ASEAN chairmanship in 2014, as well as to receive International Monetary Fund assistance and to lift western sanctions.
Environmentalists and activists worry future administrations may proceed with the Myitsone Dam. But some activists, such as Bauk Ja, remain confident.
"Future presidents or governments are less likely to resume this project," she said, "because people will always be totally against the dam construction."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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