Myanmar CSOs Urge Xi Jinping to Terminate Myitsone Dam Project

By Nan Lwin 16 January 2020

YANGON—Nearly 40 civil society organizations (CSOs) have called on Chinese President Xi Jinping to permanently terminate the suspended Myitsone Dam project, saying that the project threatens the prosperity of the Myanmar people and that friendly relations between the two countries will deteriorate if the project goes ahead.

On Wednesday, civil society organizations, mostly based in Kachin State, issued an open letter to Xi, two days before his planned visit to Myanmar.

The visit aims to pave the way for Xi’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in Myanmar and includes plans for a dozen agreements, including around the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ), which will grant China access to the Indian Ocean. A final decision on the controversial Myitsone Dam project may also be on the agenda for the visit.

“We will have to lose more and more if the project is revived. Local residents have already suffered enough because of the project. We want to stop the project permanently,” Tu Hkawng, project coordinator for civil society organization Airavati, told The Irrawaddy. “We will never agree to restarting the Myitsone project.”

Located at the confluence of the two tributaries that form the Irrawaddy River, Myanmar’s “lifeline,” the US$3.6-billion (5.3-trillion-kyat) hydropower project was suspended by then-president U Thein Sein in 2011 amid widespread public outcry over the dam’s potentially serious social and environmental impacts.

The letter issued Wednesday said that Chinese-backed projects in Kachin State are threatening the existence of local people, driving environmental and social problems such as land confiscation, and destroying historical places. There are a number of Chinese-backed investments in Kachin State, ranging from hydropower to mining and agricultural projects.

The open letter urged Xi and China to follow international standards and to respect local customs, traditions and historical places. It also urged Chinese companies to carry out legally required environmental and social impact assessments and to publicize their results.

Beijing’s constant efforts to revive the dam have fueled negative sentiment among the Myanmar public over the last year. Former Chinese Ambassador Hong Liang’s claim, after a visit to Kachin State in December 2018, that the Kachin people were not opposed to resuming the project prompted a series of protests in major cities calling for the project to be scrapped.

However, Beijing then stepped up its pressure on Kachin leaders, saying that Xi is a strong supporter of the Myitsone Dam project because it is needed to implement the BRI. In April 2019, prominent environmentalists, activist and writers formed a nationwide committee to oppose the project and warned the government that there would be further resistance if the dam is revived.

The letter from civil society groups Wednesday said that the Myitsone project lacks transparency and that proponents have failed to respect local customs and cultural values or listen to local voices. The groups urged the Chinese president to publicly release the memoranda of understanding (MoUs) and agreements between China and Myanmar.

They also stressed that China must avoid any activities that could provoke ethnic armed conflicts in the area and must not disturb ethnic armed groups’ efforts to solve the conflicts through political means with the government. Local residents say they have had land confiscated for projects without proper negotiation or compensation.

Environmentalists warn that the dam site has some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world and that the project would both destroy the natural beauty of the Irrawaddy River and disrupt water flow. They say it could potentially flood an area the size of Singapore, destroying livelihoods and displacing more than 10,000 people.

After taking power in early 2016, the National League for Democracy (NLD) set up a 20-member commission to review the project and its likely impacts on the environment and local communities. The commission has produced two reports, but the government has yet to release either.

In late January 2019, Minister for Investment and Foreign Economic Relations U Thaung Tun said the government and commission were having very serious discussions and considering all possibilities, including downsizing the dam, relocating it or developing other projects instead.

As part of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), itself a part of the BRI, China and Myanmar also plan to implement the Myitkyina Economic Development Zone (aka Namjim Industrial Zone) on the long, historic Ledo Road, 25 km from the Kachin State capital of Myitkyina and near the cross-border economic cooperation zone in Kanpiketi, in Kachin State’s Special Region 1, which is under the control of the New Democratic Army-Kachin militia.

Myanmar signed a memorandum of understanding to establish the CMEC in September 2018. The 1,700-km-long CMEC will stretch from Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan Province, and connect Mandalay and Yangon to the western coast at the Kyaukphyu SEZ in Rakhine State.

“If those projects go ahead without listening to our voices, there will be more negative effects than positive,” said Tu Hkawng. “We would like to let President Xi know what is actually happening on the ground. We also want to urge the Myanmar government to listen to our voices,” he said.

“If they fail to do so, the response from the locals might not be good,” he added.

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