On September 30th, the President of Burma, Thein Sein, suspended what would have been Southeast Asia’s biggest hydropower project, the US$3.6 billion Myitsone Dam. The president attributed the unprecedented move as an effort to “respect the will of the people.” The project was being built by a Chinese developer, and nearly all the dam’s 6,000 megawatts of power was to be exported to China.
The cancellation rewards more than five years of struggle by villagers, activists, scholars, and scientists in Burma. While it may come as a surprise to many – including the developer, China Power Investment – the success of this campaign is a testament to the depth of opposition to the project within Burma, which included important figures like the pro-democracy leader Aung San Sui Kyi.
The Irrawaddy River, which flows through the heart of Burma, supports one of the world’s most biodiverse – and vulnerable – river basins. The river feeds millions with its ample fisheries and rich delta, known as Burma’s rice basket. The Myitsone Dam is sited on the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River, which is currently undammed, and would have created a reservoir the size of Singapore. If built, 12,000 ethnic Kachin people would be relocated and up to 20,000 would be affected by its construction and operation.
Since the suspension, work at the site has stopped and Chinese workers have begun returning to China. One of the biggest lessons from this suspension has been the need for overseas companies to seriously engage with civil society critics from host countries.
Despite the suspension, the movement to protect Burma’s resources continues to rage. A string of Chinese-funded dam cascades are in the works for Burma’s rivers, including the Salween, along with other controversial projects like the Shwe Gas transnational oil and gas pipeline. The Myitsone project is part of a seven-dam cascade that represents an almost US$2 billion investment from China. If built, the cascade would impact millions of people downstream, including members of several ethnic groups.
According to the Kachin Development Networking Group, while construction has stopped at the Myitsone site, survey work and security restrictions for local residents continue. Activists and local communities are now calling for a complete cancellation of the project. How the government responds will be the true test for whether it’s ready to follow the will of its people over that of its powerful neighbor.