Scrap Myitsone Dam Project, Says Ex-President’s Office Minister

By Htet Naing Zaw 30 January 2019

NAYPYITAW—Former President’s Office Minister U Soe Thein has expressed support for terminating the controversial Myitsone Dam project, saying it could undermine national unity.

“I don’t accept [a dam] at Myitsone. This is my view. It could negatively affect national unity. Myitsone is a landmark of Kachin State,” U Soe Thein, who is currently a lawmaker in the Upper House, told reporters at the Union Parliament in Naypyitaw on Tuesday.

However, he suggested that a dam could be built somewhere upstream on either of the Mali or the N’Mai rivers, at whose confluence the Irrawaddy River begins. If necessary, compensation could be paid to China for canceling the project in Myitsone, he said.

“We [former President U Thein Sein’s administration] shelved the project. In my opinion, we shouldn’t build a dam in Myitsone,” he said.

“The political leaders today also opposed the dam during our administration. I don’t know why there is talk now of it being resumed,” U Soe Thein said.

When the National League for Democracy (NLD) was in opposition, its leader, current State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, called on the then government to make the dam contract public.

After the NLD 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.

Dr. Zaw Myint Maung, vice chairman of the NLD and Mandalay Region chief minister, has publicly said the party stands by the people regarding the Myitsone Dam project.

Another Upper House lawmaker, Dr. Khun Win Thaung from Kachin State, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday, “Kachin State has long experience with China. It cannot avoid engaging with China. We have to rely on it one way or another, and the authorities need to be smart when making a decision. If [the government] can’t make a decision, it should try to make [the project] acceptable to the people.”

Union Minister for Investment and Foreign Economic Relations U Thaung Tun told reporters at the Invest Myanmar Summit in Naypyitaw on Tuesday that the government is working hard to come up with a final decision on how to proceed with the dam project.

The minister said the government and a commission studying the project are holding serious discussions and considering all possibilities, including downsizing the dam, relocating it or developing other projects instead.

U Thaung Tun said the government was taking its relations with China into consideration as it decided what to do with the project.

The US$3.6-billion (about 5.4-trillion-kyat) project, shelved by then-President Thein Sein in 2011 amid widespread public concern over the dam’s social and environmental impacts, came under the spotlight again when Chinese Ambassador Hong Liang claimed after a visit to Kachin State at the end of December that the Kachin people were not opposed to its resumption.

The dam project agreement was signed under the military government between former Vice Senior-General Maung Aye and Chinese President Xi Jinping, who was vice president at that time.

State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, while meeting locals in Sagaing Region’s Kalay Township on Jan. 22, said no investor would trust Myanmar if a new government abolished projects approved by its predecessor just because they do not comply with its policies.