YANGON—Prominent civil society leaders, environmentalists and film stars have announced a “One Dollar” campaign to collect money from the public to compensate China in exchange for scrapping the controversial Myitsone Dam project planned for Myanmar’s lifeline, the Irrawaddy River. The campaign was announced at a forum on Saturday with the aim of giving State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi a message to convey to Beijing from the Myanmar public, and was backed up by an open letter to the Chinese president.
Four days before the State Counselor’s scheduled departure for Beijing to attend the 2nd Belt and Road Forum, a panel discussion under the title “Save the Irrawaddy by Offering Compensation” was held on Saturday at the Novotel Hotel in Yangon. The panel discussion was organized by three of the country’s most prominent civil society organizations: the Metta Development Foundation, Paung Ku and the Tharthi Myay Foundation.
In an open letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping, participants said that a dam on the Irrawaddy River is unacceptable to the people of Myanmar.
“So, in line with the [Myitsone project’s] contract, the Myanmar people wish to dutifully offer compensation for the official expenditure you have spent on the project,” the letter reads.
During her trip, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to discuss a number of controversial Chinese projects in Myanmar, particularly the Myitsone Dam project.
The proposed US$3.6-billion (5.4 trillion kyats) dam on Myanmar’s lifeline Irrawaddy River in Kachin State has been suspended since 2011 due to nationwide opposition amid warnings that the project would disrupt the flow of sediment in the country’s main waterway, harming agricultural livelihoods, while potentially flooding an area twice the size of Singapore and displacing thousands of people if it collapsed. The then military junta signed a contract on the project with China in 2006, before handing power to a quasi-civilian government in 2011.
However, Beijing’s recent efforts to revive the dam have fueled negative sentiment among the Myanmar public. Chinese Ambassador Hong Liang’s claim, after a visit to Kachin State in December, that the Kachin people were not opposed to the dam’s resumption, prompted a series of protests in major cities calling for the project to be scrapped. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government hasn’t made public its view on whether the dam should be resumed or terminated. But recent remarks by the State Counselor suggesting that governments ought to respect the deals made by their predecessors have raised public concerns that the dam project is back on the track.
The Chinese company behind the project says Myanmar will owe it US$800 million in compensation if the government cancels the dam, but could earn US$500 million a year in revenue if it goes head.
Attended by around 700 people, Saturday’s forum in Yangon was the latest event called to protest against the project. Panelists included prominent academics, politicians, civil society leaders, environmentalists and film stars. They requested that Myanmar citizens contribute one dollar each to cover the compensation required to scrap the Myitsone Dam. They also plan to send a letter to Xi appealing to him to accept the compensation instead of reviving the dam. A majority of attendees endorsed the idea of offering compensation to China.
It was not the first effort to raise a collective voice against the Myitsone Dam. Prominent environmentalists, writers and civil society leaders on April 1 formed a nationwide committee calling for the total abolition of the project, and warned the government it would face severe resistance from the public across the country if it made the wrong decision.
“There is no time for hesitation. This is the time to make an effort to stop the Myitsone Dam completely,” Lahpai Seng Raw, founder of the Metta Development Foundation and a 2013 recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award, said on Saturday.
“This is not the time to fear any pressure or threats. The future of our citizens depends on the Irrawaddy River,” Lahpai Seng Raw said.
“By offering compensation to the Chinese government from the public, we can save our country’s dignity and sovereignty,” she said.
U Tun Lwin, the country’s best-known meteorologist and founder of Myanmar Climate Change Watch, said, “I cannot accept any dam project on the Irrawaddy River.”
In late January, U Thaung Tun, the minister of Investment and Foreign Economic Relations, said the government and a commission were holding serious discussions and considering all possibilities, including downsizing the dam or relocating it.
“The catchment area of the dam is 65 percent to 70 percent of the country. There is no doubt that our sovereignty would be totally surrendered to the Chinese government if we let them build the dam,” said U Tun Lwin.
After taking office, the National League for Democracy-led government set up a 20-member commission to review the dam and its likely impacts on the environment and local communities. The commission has produced two reports to date, but the government has yet to make either of them public.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi promised during the 2015 elections that she would make public the project contract signed by the military dictatorship, but has maintained a long silence on her own stance on the dam project.
One of the panelists at Saturday’s discussion, Shan Nationalities League for Democracy Secretary U Sai Nyunt Lwin, said, “We all know that the government is facing a crisis. If they make the wrong decision, they will face severe resistance and consequences from the public.”
He said, “On Myitsone, we need to be unified. We cannot think about what ethnicity we are, which party we come from. We are just citizens of the Union of Myanmar.”
“It is time to protect Myitsone together. I would like to invite all citizens of Myanmar to join the campaign,” he added.
Prominent writer Juu said that while manmade monuments can be recreated, natural gifts cannot.
“I want to take back Myitsone no matter what,” she said.
Regarding the planned “One Dollar” campaign, the panelists did not reveal how they planned to collect the money from the public.
“We will wait and see how China responds. We will make a move depending on how they react,”
U Sai Nyunt Lwin said.
“Myitsone is under our sovereignty. There is nothing China can do without our [Myanmar citizens’] consent,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Waimaw Township, about 19 km from Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, more than 4,000 local people planned to stage a major protest against the dam on Monday. The township is one of the most vulnerable areas should the dam break. Residential areas of the township, which lies downstream of the dam, would be wiped out.