Chinese envoy says momentum good to restart Myitsone dam

Ambassador to Myanmar Yang Houlan says momentum is still good to complete the Myitsone dam, called off after local protests

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 August, 2013, 3:51am

Beijing is seeking to restart construction of the stalled Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy river, a Myanmese newspaper quoted ambassador Yang Houlan as saying.

But China would only proceed with government permission and the consent of the nation's people, Yang told The Irrawaddy in an exclusive interview published on Tuesday.

President Thein Sein suspended work on the dam in 2011, citing the "people's will" following widespread protests domestically and globally.

The US$3 billion project by the China Power Investment (CPI) would have been Myanmar's largest dam by far, flooding an area the size of Singapore to provide power mostly to cities in Yunnan province. As many as 10,000 ethnic Kachins in the country's restive northeast could be displaced.

In Tuesday's interview, Yang said the suspension had not harmed ties with Myanmar and "the momentum is still good."

The ambassador said that without more power, improving Myanmar's agriculture and industry would be impossible.

"If you want to develop the industrial sector, then power supply is a basic need," Yang was quoted as saying. "Without electricity, how can you develop industry?

"China's view is that we hope we can revive the project. But of course, we respect the Myanmar government's decision and we also respect the people's views."

Yang's announcement comes after an apparent charm offensive by Beijing targeting the Myanmese public.

Experts said Yang's cautious optimism about restarting the dam project may be at least partially inspired by the China-Myanmar gas pipeline which began operations two weeks ago.

Yang's predecessor, Li Junhua , reportedly also advocated restarting construction of the dam last year but was quickly met with local opposition.

"Why should the Irrawaddy-Myitsone dam project be built to provide 90 per cent of the power generated to China, while the people of Burma must bear all the social and environmental costs?" the Burma Rivers Network, a non-governmental organisation, wrote in an open letter to Li in December.

According to The Irrawaddy, renewed activity has been reported at the construction site. Local media have reported that CPI told villagers that work had been suspended only for Thein Sein's tenure and that construction might resume in 2015.

"The dam has been suspended, not stopped - whatever that means," said Bernt Berger, head of the Asia programme at the Institute for Security and Development Policy.

Berger said there were widespread reports from locals that Chinese corporations were engaged in gold mining around Myitsone.

"I don't think the Chinese government fully understands what happens in Kachin. This is no longer about resettlement and compensation but about self-determination and being part of the political process," Berger said. "Kachin wants to have a say in the dialogue about these big projects."

Berger said projects such as the dam were central in dialogue between Kachin rebels and the government. "My assessment is that the civilian government will not consider resuming construction at the moment."