The Chinese company pushing to restart the controversial Myitsone dam in Kachin state is confident that Burma’s new democratic leadership, including Aung San Suu Kyi, will back the project.
In an exclusive interview with DVB, China Power Investment (CPI) Yunnan International Power Investment Co. Chairman Li Guanghua insisted that the new regime led by President Thein Sein has “guaranteed to honour agreements made with the past government”.
“Moreover, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has mentioned that in order to become a credible country in the world, Burma should respect agreements made in the past,” he said, referring to her comments about the Latpadaung copper mine, another China-backed natural resource venture which provoked a backlash from locals. “So we assume the citizens of Burma are trustworthy and [will follow up on the agreement.]”
CPI has been lobbying to re-open the US$3.6 billion project ever since it was suspended by Thein Sein in 2011 following a public outcry against its social and environmental impacts. Activists say the project will displace up to 15,000 villagers, submerge an area the size of Singapore, and ultimately pump 90 percent of its electricity output into China’s Yunnan province, even though three quarters of Burma’s population live in darkness.
“CPI does not respect the views of the people in Burma, because [Burmese people] have already said clearly that the dam is unacceptable,” Ah Nan, spokesperson for the Burma Rivers Network (BRN), told DVB. “I think that CPI should listen to the will of the people about the Myitsone dam.”
Ah Nan added that the dam, which is located in Burma’s volatile Kachin state, is likely to fuel further conflict between government forces and ethnic minority rebels who are fighting for greater self-determination. She also highlighted Burma’s woefully inadequate regulatory framework as a key obstacle to responsible investment.
But CPI says it has been “misunderstood” and continues to step up a PR offensive in the Myitsone area, aimed at convincing locals the project will bring socio-economic benefits.
“The most important question is whether Burma wants the dam or not. If they don’t want it, we won’t go ahead,” said Li, adding that CPI would work to address local grievances until an agreement was reached.
“If the citizens of Burma don’t want to have electricity, make use of the Irrawaddy River and don’t want improvements to their lives and economy, then we would not continue the dam project.”
But locals say that construction on the project has continued over the past two years, and villagers living in “temporary” displacement camps nearby are still being denied the right to return. Ah Nan said that most villagers are sceptical of CPI’s motives and “don’t want the dam to be built”.
An environmental impact assessment conducted by CPI in July 2011 also concluded that “there is no need for such a big dam to be constructed at the confluence of the Irrawaddy River.”
But Li insists that “step-by-step assessments” were carried out to determine whether the project would be beneficial for Burma. China continued to rev up its pressure on the government this week during the 10th ASEAN-China Expo in Nanning.
The Myitsone dam is one of several hydropower projects planned for Burma’s Irrawaddy River, which is the country’s most important commercial waterway and a lifeline for millions. During years of Burmese military rule, Chinese investments have led to mass land confiscations, human rights abuses and pollution, especially in Burma’s ethnic minority territories.
Burma’s renowned pro-democracy icon Suu Kyi previously denounced the project, but since entering parliament last year she has taken an increasingly conciliatory approach towards China.
The project is backed by Burma’s Asia World, led by Steven Law—a notorious regime crony who remains on the US sanctions list and is the son of the late drug kingpin Loi Hsing Han.
Additional reporting by Myo Zaw Linn