YANGON—The Archbishop of Yangon, Cardinal Charles Bo, said the controversial Chinese-backed Myitsone Dam slated for construction at the source of the Irrawaddy River, known as Myanmar’s lifeline, “must be stopped” to ensure a peaceful future for the country, adding that the construction of the dam would be a “death sentence for the people of Myanmar”.
In the face of nationwide opposition, Myanmar’s previous government under President U Thein Sein suspended the dam project in 2011, after the state-owned China Power Investment Corporation had already started work. Environmentalists and villagers warned that the mega project would disrupt the flow of sediment in the country’s main waterway, harming agricultural livelihoods. If completed, it would flood an area twice the size of Singapore and displace thousands of people.
The cardinal’s call follows a strong push by China to convince local people to support the project. In his statement “Stop Trafficking Our Mother Irrawaddy”, Cardinal Bo told Myanmar authorities and the international community that Myanmar is facing the sad prospect of losing the Irrawaddy “to the greed of a superpower.”
“On behalf of all the people of Myanmar, especially the poor farmers, we earnestly request all stakeholders to stop their attempts to abuse our Mother Irrawaddy,” the cardinal said in his statement released this week.
Calling the Irrawaddy “Her Majesty”, Cardinal Bo said the river is not a “commodity to be bartered” but “the most sacred symbol of our nation”, as thousands of sacred sites are situated along its banks.
The cardinal also warned that the dam would be an environmental disaster and a toxic cognac for chronic war, referring to fighting between the Kachin ethnic armed group and the Myanmar military in the north of the country, where the dam site is located.
“Peace will fade over the horizon. A bleak future awaits the people of Myanmar. We do not deserve this,” he said.
Currently, the Myitsone project remains in limbo. After the National League for Democracy took power in 2016, the government set up a 20-member commission including the chief minister of Kachin to review the project, including its environmental and social impacts. The commission has produced two reports to date, but the government has yet to release either.
Myanmar investment and foreign economic relations Minister U Thaung Tun recently said the government still wants to find a solution for the dam “because they [value] relations with China”, and was considering all possibilities, including downsizing the dam, relocating it or developing other projects instead.
But the Cardinal said everyone in Myanmar would support the move to abrogate any treaty that abuses “Mother Irrawaddy”, while comparing those who support restarting the Myitsone Dam to sons and daughters who exploit their own parents for monetary gain. History would never forgive those who sell our Mother Irrawaddy, he said.
“We earnestly request that the people of Myanmar join hands to protect the dignity of our Mother Irrawaddy. We are hopeful that our leaders will resist all efforts to destroy our nation’s destiny and dignity,” the cardinal said.
It was not the first time that Cardinal Bo has spoken out against the Myitsone Dam project.
In 2017, during a visit to Kachin State, Cardinal Bo told Catholic villagers in Tanphaye, one of the villages in the project area, that the entire country should object to the dam project.
“This project shouldn’t be completed,” he said at the time. “It can destroy not only Kachin state, but also the entire country.”