Myitsone Dam Resumption Would Prove Suu Kyi’s Downfall

By The Irrawaddy 7 June 2016

On Saturday, some 40 residents of the Kachin State capital Myitkyina staged a brief protest in front of the Palm Spring Resort. They were demanding a permanent halt to the Chinese-funded Myitsone dam and hydropower project in Kachin State.

The contentious project is sited 26 miles north of Myitkyina, and just downstream from the confluence that forms Burma’s Irrawaddy River.

At the luxury hotel, a meeting was being held between Chinese Ambassador Hong Liang, Chinese investor China Power Investment (CPI) and chairman of the Kachin State Democracy Party (KSDP) Tu Ja. They discussed the resumption of the 6,000-megawatt US$3.6-billion Myitsone Dam, which is being pursued earnestly by China.

The demonstration was small and brief but reflected widespread public opinion in Burma. It is popularly assumed that the current government, which enjoys a huge mandate after the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) landslide win in the November election, would not resume the dam project but instead place it under review, along with other controversial mega development projects in Burma. It is about time that they did.

The former president Thein Sein boldly suspended the Myitsone Dam project in his first year of office, in 2011, in the face of sustained opposition both in Kachin State and across Burma. The risk of environmental degradation was the chief purported reason.

Thein Sein’s decision not only reflected public opinion but also sent a signal to the West that Burma was no longer in the pocket of China. Western governments welcomed the move.

However, many more Chinese-funded projects were waiting in the pipeline, several of which were allowed to proceed under the Thein Sein government—with no soliciting of public opinion, transparency or accountability. But the Burmese public had grown used to seeing generals, and former generals, selling off the country’s resources to China.

Now everything falls on the shoulders of the new government. If the NLD government decides to resume the Myitsone Dam, the Burmese people will demand that they leave office. China should understand this.

The truth is that many within the NLD—including the large number elected to Parliament in November—do not wish for the Myitsone dam or many other controversial projects to proceed. Many were veteran political activists who had grown concerned over the environmental, economic and social impacts of Chinese-backed giant infrastructure projects in Burma.

However, the decision rests with senior leadership—particularly Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s foreign minister, state counselor and head of the ruling NLD. But even her own party members appear not to know how she will proceed. Suu Kyi keeps everyone guessing.

The Myitsone dam is not even the biggest of the Chinese-backed projects planned for Burma. It is dwarfed in size by a proposed US$20 billion railway line linking China’s southwestern Yunnan Province with a deep-water seaport being built off the coast of Burma’s Arakan State. This would give China direct access to the Bay of Bengal—a key Chinese strategic goal.

The Chinese government was hoping that, with the election of a new government in Burma, the multi-billion dollar Myitsone dam would finally be given the green light to resume. The Chinese were betting on Suu Kyi, who was invited to Beijing to meet with President Xi Jinping a few months before the November general election. It was not known what they discussed.

A week after the NLD government—de facto led by Suu Kyi—was sworn into office in Burma at the end of March, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi paid Suu Kyi a surprise visit. On meeting with reporters, Suu Kyi said she “didn’t discuss the Myitsone Dam project with the Chinese foreign minister because I haven’t become familiar enough with the details of the contract.”

Turning to diplomatic niceties at a joint press conference, Suu Kyi in her role as foreign minister said: “The social and economic relationship between our two countries is very important, since we are neighbors.”

“Our government’s policy is for friendly cooperation with the whole world, and I hope neighboring countries will join hands with us in working for peace and human development,” Suu Kyi said.

She is correct. We need to maintain friendly relations with China—as we should with all our neighbors, whether we like them or not. At the same time, Burma needs neighbors and investors who act constructively and responsibly towards it.

The Chinese at home, including the Myitsone Dam’s investors in CPI, and Ambassador Hong Liang should know that resuming the project would seriously tarnish Suu Kyi’s claims for moral and political leadership in Burma, and may even prompt a revolt among her own party members in the NLD.

It is time for Burma’s government to review the Myitsone Dam and many other Chinese-backed projects that pose serious harm to the environment and the public at large—harm that could take generations to reverse.