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Myanmar drops controversial dam project

Myanmar workers stood on the bank of the Irrawaddy River in the country’s Kachin State. Myanmar workers stood on the bank of the Irrawaddy River in the country’s Kachin State. (Str/AFP/Getty Images/File 2010)
By Thomas Fuller
New York Times / October 1, 2011

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BANGKOK - In a rare concession to public pressure, Myanmar’s government yesterday ordered the suspension of a controversial hydroelectric project financed and led by a state-owned Chinese company.

The Myitsone dam project would have been the first to span the Irrawaddy River, the largest waterway in Myanmar, and was a showcase project for the previous military government. The halt in construction was a victory for dissidents in a country with a long history of stifling opposition.

Many prominent people inside Myanmar - including writers, scientists, and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi - had opposed the project.

The government’s announcement underscores the nascent stirrings of democracy in Myanmar, also known as Burma, after a nominally civilian government took control from a military junta in March.

The dam’s suspension was a blow to China, long considered a benefactor to the government in Myanmar. China Power Investment, a state-run Chinese company, was leading the construction of the project, which would have delivered electricity to southern China. It is unclear how the suspension will affect six other Chinese-led hydroelectric projects in northern Myanmar.

The announcement yesterday was made during a session of Parliament in the capital, Naypyidaw. The statement acknowledged the role that public pressure had played in the decision.

“Being the government elected by the people, it upholds the aspiration and wishes of the people,’’ said a statement by President U Thein Sein, according to the Weekly Eleven, a newspaper in Myanmar. “It is also responsible to solve the problems that worry the public. Therefore, the government will suspend the Myitsone dam project during its tenure.’’

Although top officials in Myanmar, including Thein Sein, are former military officers, the government has sought to distance itself from decades of army rule. The new government has loosened restrictions on the media, is drafting laws on economic liberalization, and is holding regular meetings with Suu Kyi, who was released from years of house arrest in November. An estimated 2,000 political prisoners remain in detention.

Despite describing its decision as a suspension of the dam’s construction, Thein Sein’s statement seemed to suggest that the project would not continue, at least not in its current form.

“To fulfill the electricity need of the country, the government will continue to implement other hydropower projects that are not harmful to the nation after conducting systematic surveys,’’ it said.

The statement added that the government would negotiate terms with China “without affecting the friendly bilateral relations between the two countries.’’

Chinese businesses have rapidly spread throughout Myanmar in recent years. Chinese companies are sometimes blamed for deforestation and are resented for their appetite for Myanmar’s natural resources. A pipeline that would carry natural gas and oil from the Bay of Bengal to southern China is under construction.

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