Foreign Countries Behind Myitsone Dam Opposition: Chinese Ambassador

By Nan Lwin 22 May 2019

YANGON—Opposition to the controversial Chinese-backed Myitsone Dam was politically victimized by “some forces backed by foreign countries” in an effort to derail Myanmar’s democratic reform process and hinder China-Myanmar relations, the outgoing Chinese ambassador to Myanmar said.

“Misinformation frequently came out [about the dam]. Their goal is to create misunderstanding about the project,” Ambassador Hong Liang said through a translator at a press conference on Tuesday in Yangon.

Hong did not name the “forces” or “foreign countries” he referred to.

“We need to beware of their stance,” he said.

The US$3.6-billion (5.46 trillion kyats) dam on Myanmar’s lifeline, the Irrawaddy River, in Kachin State was suspended in 2011 after nationwide opposition over its potentially severe environmental and social impacts. Recent pressure from Beijing to push the project forward has only inflamed opposition across the country.

Claiming the Myitsone Dam is “the only obstacle between China and Myanmar,” Hong warned those who want to damage relations between the two nations: “They won’t accomplish it.”

The dam issue came under the spotlight again when Hong, after visiting Kachin State at the end of December, claimed that the Kachin people were not opposed to the dam’s resumption. Prominent Kachin parties immediately objected, calling the claim “inaccurate and misleading.”

In recent months, a series of protests against the project were held in major cities throughout Myanmar, including Yangon, Myitkyina and Pathein. In April, prominent environmentalists, writers and civil society leadersformed a nationwide committee to oppose the project, warning the government of more resistance if it were revived. They also held a“One Dollar” campaign to collect money from the public—one dollar per person—to compensate China for scrapping the mega dam project.

The Archbishop of Yangon, Cardinal Charles Bo, also called on Myanmar and Chinese leadersto permanently terminate the Myitsone Dam project, saying they have a responsibility to protect the rights and lives of Myanmar citizens.

Despite all the opposition to Myitsone, the ambassador said, China continues to secure projects in Myanmar, and there remains great potential for the two countries to work together for the benefit of all in the future.

In November, the two countries successfully renegotiated the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone, inking a framework agreement. The project would give China’s landlocked Yunnan province access to the Indian Ocean.

During State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s Beijing visit to attend the Second Belt and Road Forum last month,the two countries signed three agreements detailing strengthening cooperation between the countries on the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), trade and technology. They also signed agreements on a list of projects to be implemented under the CMEC, and China handed over a feasibility study report for the Muse-Mandalay Railway.

While many had speculated that the State Counselor and Chinese President Xi Jinping would discuss the Myitsone Dam issue, Myanmar officials said the issue was not on the agenda.

At Tuesday’s press conference, Hong said the Myitsone project was meant to meet Myanmar’s electricity shortage, citing the country’s chronic blackouts.

“Electricity is needed for Myanmar when it comes to implementing infrastructure projects,” he said.

However, according to an agreement between the Ministry of Electric Power No. 1 and the China Power Investment Corporation (CPI), now known as the State Power Investment Corporation (SPIC), the project would send 90 percent of its electricity to Yunnan Province in southern China.

Hong emphasized that the dam project has been suspended for more than eight years and that the company behind it has been suffering economic losses as a result.

He also stressed that the Myanmar government needs to protect the rights of that company, which has operated in accordance with the country’s legal framework.

In late January, Minister for Investment and Foreign Economic Relations U Thaung Tun said the government is working in earnest toward a final decision on the Myitsone Dam and is considering three possibilities: downsizing the dam, relocating it or developing other projects instead.

Hong did not declare a preferred solution Tuesday.

“Both sides agreed that we would solve the issue by looking [to] both countries’ benefit,” he said.

In 2016, the National League for Democracy (NLD) set up a 20-member commission, including the chief minister of Kachin State, 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 release either.

“We are waiting [for] the results of the reports by the commission,” Hong said on Tuesday.

“If we settle the issue smoothly, it will support [the] advancement [of] bilateral relation. It will also support extended trust between both countries,” he said.

The ambassador said people need to be patient about the Myitsone project. “In suitable time, the Myanmar government will give an answer which will please the Myanmar citizens,” he said.

After nearly four years, upon the completion of his duties, the Chinese ambassador is now preparing to leave the country. He met with top leaders in Naypyitaw last week, including State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint, in a gesture of farewell.

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