RANGOON—Backed by local activists, a group of ethnic Kachin villagers says it plans to sue China Power Investment Co. (CPI), the Chinese state-backed company that was granted a license by the former military regime in Burma to construct the Myitsone Dam.
Bawk Jar, a well-known Kachin activist and spokesperson for the group, told The Irrawaddy that local residents in the Myitsone area are investigating ways to take legal action against CPI for destroying the local environment and forcing hundreds of people to relocate.
“They [CPI] destroyed our land. They destroyed our environment. They destroyed the livelihoods of our people. They also destroyed our heritage,” said Bawk Jar who is currently the chairwoman of the Kachin State National Democratic Force (NDF) and the founder of an NGO called Vision of Peace.
“Now the locals are preparing to sue CPI and are looking into legal representation from law firms,” she said.
In early 2011, soon after taking office, President Thein Sein announced the suspension of the Myitsone Dam project following an uproar from activists, environmentalists and local Kachin residents who said that the dam, which was to be built near the source of the Irrawaddy River, would affect thousands of local Kachins and possibly millions of people living downstream who depend on the flow of the Irrawaddy for their livelihoods.
The announcement brought rare domestic and international acclaim to the government, and Thein Sein was widely lauded as a genuine reformer.
However, activists frequently point out that the suspension of the megadam is only valid during Thein Sein’s tenure which should expire at the next general election in 2015.
In addition, local Kachins claim that despite the presidential order, work continues at the project.
Bawk Jar said that hundreds of people from the Myitsone area were forced to relocate miles away to new villages where they have faced many difficulties, not least of which is a lack of food and jobs, and high levels of disease and depression.
Maj. Zaw Htay, the director of the President’s Office, told The Irrawaddy on Monday that “the government has ordered CPI to stop all activities on the Myitsone Dam.”
“As chairman of the MIC [Myanmar Investment Committee], Minister Soe Thein, has already told CPI to halt all operations at the Myitsone Dam and instructed the company to take all its machinery back to China,” he said.
Asked about the reports of disease and death rates at the new villages, Zaw Htay expressed concern and said that the government will investigate the situation, and that if the reports are shown to be true, action will be taken.
“When I visited the new villages in 2010, they looked pretty good. Excellent schools and roads had been built,” he said. “It was certainly a better situation than the villages for the [Cyclone] Nargis victims.
“But I could not reach all the villages, and I am unaware of the current situation. However, we will surely launch an investigation,” he said.
Zaw Htay declined to comment on the plans of local Kachins to sue CPI, except to say that all actions will be decided in accordance with the law and the Constitution.
Win Myo Thu, the head of a local environmental NGO called Ecodev, told The Irrawaddy that Burma has no law whereby a company can be sued for damaging the environment.
“As far as I understand, our country has no environmental law whereby CPI can be sued,” he said. “However, the villagers can take legal action against CPI for forcing them from their homes and off their land.”