By Francis Wade
Reports in local Burmese media claim construction of the controversial Myitsone Dam, which has been the target of rare but sustained protests in Burma, has been suspended.
The Weekly Eleven news journal said that a letter was sent to parliament today by President Thein Sein announcing a halt to operations in the country’s northern Kachin state.
The project will not resume during his tenure as president, the 10-point letter claims. The Myanmar Times reports that it has been suspended for 10 years.
According to parliamentary law, Burma’s president has unilateral power over some 30 decisions, including mining of natural resources and “dam and irrigation facilties”, meaning it is unlikely he needed consent from parliament over the decision to suspend the project.
It comes less than a fortnight after the government made seemingly contradictory comments regarding the future of the multi-billion dollar project being financed by Beijing. Electricity Minister-1 Zaw Min told a seminar on 11 September that the government would not back down on the dam, but said a few days later that it may “reconsider”.
Then on 20 September, police arrested a lone protestor who had demonstrated against the project outside the the Chinese Cultural Office in Rangoon.
Upon completion, the $US3.6 billion Myitsone Dam would have been the world’s fifteenth tallest dam, pipping China’s mammoth Three Gorges Dam.
Huge animosity has surrounded the development, aimed largely at the estimated displacement of 15,000 people and ecological damage to the Irrawaddy river. Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has thrown her weight behind the Save Irrawaddy campaign, which appears to be gathering momentum.
Burmese are also angry that the overwhelming majority of power generated by the dam will be sold to China, despite only 20 percent of the country’s population having regular access to electricity.
Whether public disquiet triggered the rethink is unclear, although Thein Sein has enacted certain reformist measures aimed at placating local and international pressure on the government.
Despite the strategic and financial importance for both China and Burma, the project has not received high-level support across the board: an internal report in 2009 by the China Power Investment Corporation, the company behind the dam, said that its size was unneccesary, and called for it to be scrapped.
It is not yet clear what level of consultation took place between Thein Sein and his Chinese counterparts over the project’s suspension.