Who Would Compensate for the Myitsone Hydropower Project?

By The Irrawaddy 27 April 2019

Kyaw Kha: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss who will have to compensate for the Myitsone Dam project. I’m The Irrawaddy Burmese edition’s chief reporter Kyaw Kha and I am joined by the chairman of the Democratic Party for a New Society U Aung Moe Zaw and environmentalist Dr. Myint Zaw.

There have been increased calls for the complete termination of the Myintsone hydropower project and recently, there was a panel discussion about it with you [as a panelist], Dr. Myint Zaw. The discussion titled “Save Irrawaddy by Offering Compensation” suggested collecting money from the public to compensate China in exchange for scrapping the controversial Myitsone Dam project. Public opinion can be divided into two groups—one group in favor of and the other against the idea of compensating. Could you explain why you panelists chose that topic?

Myint Zaw: The Myitsone Dam crisis has continued for some time and now there are political changes and it appears that we have been put into a tight corner. We thought it is time to switch up from the usual awareness campaigns we conducted in the past and we wondered if we could find a solution in which the people could participate. We wondered if the government and people could work together to find an alternative. Our idea was for the public to give support to the government to get the dam project scrapped and to give compensation with our own money.

KK: U Aung Moe Zaw, what do you think of this idea? And do you think China would accept it? They are very keen to build the dam.

Aung Moe Zaw: I assume that the majority of Myanmar people do not accept the Myitsone [dam]. Myitsone opponents may take different approaches to stopping the dam project. Besides the idea presented by Ko Myint Zaw, there might be many other ideas. Secondly, I think we should heed all the efforts to stop Myitsone. Thirdly, the State Counselor is visiting China and there are concerns that the project will be resumed. Under such circumstances, the timing of efforts made by experts, CSOs (civil society organizations) and prominent figures is quite perfect, I think. Again, I think no matter what campaign is made, it is important that it is joined by the majority of the people. Only when the majority of the people participate, will it draw the attention of the country’s leaders. The campaign will be more effective if China realizes that Myanmar people oppose the project, I think. The move spearheaded by Ko Myint Zaw and others, I think, is an approach that allows the majority of ordinary people to get involved. It is important that the campaign is joined by many people. The more people that join the campaign, the more it will attract the attention of our leaders as well as the Chinese side. I think their move allows for public participation.

KK: However, there is another view that people shouldn’t need to compensate for it because it was not them who sold Myitsone and that those who signed the contract should take responsibility for it. What do you think of this view?

AMZ: Yes, there are people who think so and I acknowledge their view. I think it is reasonable. Now is a critical moment as the fate of the Irrawaddy River is to be decided. There must be a public campaign at this time. There were protests against the dam in Waingmaw (Kachin State) a few days ago. A well-attended anti-dam discussion was held in the past and anti-dam protests have been held in front of Maha Bandoola Park [in Yangon]. Such activities should be carried out at this point of time, I think. The more anti-dam activities, the better [for the success of the termination of the project].

KK: You raised two concerns. State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is visiting China [as of Wednesday] to attend the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) cooperation forum and she is set to sign [some agreements on] Chinese projects in Myanmar during her visit. There are two different speculations—one is that she will sign [an agreement for] the Myitsone Dam project and another is that she will find an alternative. I assume that your panel discussion about saving the Irrawaddy [River] was timed to coincide with her visit. Did you organize the panel discussion because you heard that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would sign for the dam project during her China trip?

MZ: You mentioned that some people said they shouldn’t need to compensate for the dam project and that those who signed the contract should take responsibility. I accept that view, which is reasonable. However, now is a critical moment for us and there is a need to act with utmost urgency. Now is not the time to argue about social justice and who is responsible for this crisis. We held the panel discussion to find out how to pull out the thorn stuck in the heart of our country. As you said, we view this moment as very important as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is visiting China to attend the BRI conference. We want to give her the message that she has public support to scrap the project and that though people are poor, they are willing to give from their own pockets to get the project scrapped. We gave this message so that she can take bold steps in the negotiations. We still don’t know what her decision will be.

KK: What is your view, U Aung Moe Zaw?

AMZ: Personally, I want the project scrapped. I assume the State Counselor will clearly understand the wishes, sentiment and heart of the people. I want her to try to get the dam project scrapped with minimal negative impact. This is my view.

KK: As far as we know, the dam project contract was signed in 2009 during the time of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) by SPDC’s first secretary Thiha Thura Tin Aung Myint Oo. It was also signed by the SPDC’s vice-chairman Maung Aye. There are calls on social media for action to be taken against them and netizens asked whether they should be held responsible for this. What is your view on this?

MZ: I accept that view. People still can’t just forgive and forget. Our efforts were directed toward saving the lifeline of our country (the Irrawaddy River) with a sense of urgency. When Cyclone Nargis hit the country at the time of military government rule, all the people joined hands [to help the victims]. Our idea is to focus on how to save it, setting aside the question of who is responsible for it. To answer your question, we accept the view that those who signed the contract should take responsibility for it. But at the same time, we need to be pragmatic in finding a solution.

KK: Who should be responsible for saving the Irrawaddy regarding the Myitsone project?

AMZ: Basically, the ruling party and the current leaders are most responsible for saving it. Yes, it is true that the project was signed for by the previous government and justice must be served regarding their actions. But the power to make decisions, for the time being, is in her [Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s] hands, so there is a need to give her a message about public opinion in all seriousness. She is the most responsible person, for the time being. There are a lot of things to point out about the Myitsone Dam project.  Before the [2015] election, she said if she could form a government, that the first thing she would do would be to inform the public about the [details of the] contract. So far, it has not yet happened. What’s worse, she also said months ago that investor confidence would be undermined if a new government abolished projects approved by its predecessor. It is a cause for concern for us. She is visiting China and if she says yes to the project, it will have an indirect impact on everything, including the peace process. But I assume that the people’s leader, the State Counselor, knows the heart of Myanmar people. I want her to try on behalf of Myanmar people to get it scrapped.

KK: Saya U Myint Zaw, your one-dollar campaign has also drawn criticism. People demand that the contract be publicly disclosed. Don’t you think it should be revealed before soliciting donations? As U Aung Moe Zaw mentioned, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi promised that her government would reveal the contract, but it has not yet done so. What difficulties do you think disclosing the contract would bring about?

MZ: Frankly speaking, we have no idea why it still hasn’t disclosed the [details of the] contract.  Yes, we also saw criticism online about our campaign and the public asked why they should compensate while they are not even informed about the contract. We launched the campaign as a preparation in case there are provisions about compensation in the contract. But if a particular decision is made while we are waiting for the disclosure of the contract, we will have to suffer and we therefore launched the campaign. As we conducted the campaign, a lot of questions arose, including around the disclosure of the contract and the responsibility of the previous and current governments. This indicates the public concern. We don’t have any complaints about the public’s criticism of us. We are happy that people are expressing their opinions and concerns. There were times people were not attentive to this issue, but now people have become alert to it.

KK: It can be said that the whole country doesn’t accept the Myitsone Dam project. Will it be good news or bad news that we are going to hear from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to China?

MZ: We have been holding our breath since she left for China. We are very worried. We hope for the best, but at the same time, we are concerned. The decision to implement the project will have many consequences among the public, in Kachin State and regarding the environment. We are very worried that a wrong decision will further weaken the already fragile country. We have both hopes and concerns.

KK: Ko Aung Moe Zaw, what will the consequences be if the dam project is resumed either during Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit or later?

AMZ: I’m concerned about the influence of our neighbor (China). Resumption of the project will make people unhappy and have negative impacts for the ruling party. It could impact relations with armed groups based in those areas and on the peace process. It would prolong the fighting in our country.

KK: Thank you for your contributions!