Burma’s President, Thein Sein, today sent a letter to Burma's parliament suspending construction of the Chinese-backed US$ 3.6 billion Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy River. This surprising announcement, if enforced, marks a major achievement for Burma’s civil society and local communities in Kachin State that have consistently opposed the construction of the Myitsone Dam because of its expected negative environmental and social impacts.
In May 2007, China Power Investment Corporation (CPI) signed an agreement with Burma’s government for the construction of seven dams on the Irrawaddy, N’Mai Hka, and Mali Hka Rivers in Kachin State, at a total cost of approximately US$ 20 billion. At 152 meters high, the 6,000 MW Myitsone dam is the largest of these seven planned dams and, according to Burma Rivers Network, the construction of the Myitsone Dam will “impact millions of people downstream who depend on the Irrawaddy for agriculture, fishing, and transportation. The dam will also destroy…one of the most significant cultural heritage sites for the Kachin people and an important landmark for all of Burma.”
Earlier this year, a controversial environmental impact assessment (EIA) conducted by CPI concluded “there is no need for such a big dam to be constructed at the confluence of the Irrawaddy River.” Civil society and local community opposition to the Myitsone Dam has crystallized over recent months, and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been vocal in her criticism of the dam project and the importance of protecting the Irrawaddy River.
The construction of the Myitsone Dam is also widely considered the latest catalyst in the recent eruption of armed conflict between the Burmese army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), an ethnic armed group that controls large sections of Kachin State. Fighting around the Myitsone Dam erupted earlier this year when Burmese army forces entered KIA territory to secure the project site, displacing tens of thousands of people.
The suspension of the Myitsone Dam also reflects the success of Burma’s civil society; however the wider implication of the project’s suspension remain to be seen, particularly Burma’s relations and future negotiations with the KIA and China.
Hopefully, the turn in favor for the Myitsone Dam will result in a greater openness for local communities in Burma to debate the environmental, social, and economic aspects of other natural resource development projects, including the construction of dams on the Salween River as well as the construction of dual oil and natural gas pipelines stretching from the Bay of Bengal to China’s Yunnan Province.