Beijing has asked the Burmese government to protect the interests of Chinese companies whose massive dam project in the Southeast Asian nation was put on hold last week following strong protests from environmentalists and other groups.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in a statement posted on the ministry’s website that issues related to the $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam should be “handled appropriately through bilateral friendly consultation.”
He urged the Burmese government to “protect the legal and legitimate rights and interests of Chinese enterprises,” emphasizing that the dam on Burma’s Irrawaddy River is a “jointly invested project” and that it has “gone through scientific verification and strict examination [on] both sides.”
The 3,600 megawatt project in Burma’s northern Kachin state would have supplied 90 percent of its electricity to China, with the Burmese government receiving about $500 million annually.
In a stunning announcement Friday, Burmese President Thein Sein said that work on the controversial dam would be suspended “according to the desire of the people.”
The dam had provoked rare public outcry in Burma in recent weeks, as police shut down a rally in Rangoon calling for a stop to the mammoth project.
Critics say the dam would submerge dozens of villages, displace more than 10,000 people, and destroy the ecology of the Irrawaddy, Burma’s lifeline and longest waterway. The dam, which would create a reservoir the size of Singapore, is also close to a fault line, which could be hazardous in an earthquake.
The decision to halt the dam was welcomed by the parliament and the public.
“Now that the president has announced the dam will be suspended, I think there is nothing China can do about it,” Jay Yaw Wu, a member of Burma’s parliament from Kachin state, told RFA.
“China should know that the Burmese government has no other choice but to stop the Myitsone Dam as [it is] the people’s strong desire,” said Aung Kyaw Zaw, a political and military analyst based on the Sino-Burmese border.
“But China used a dominating tone with the Burmese government, and China looks out for its own interests, not for the people in Burma,” he said.
The dam was proposed in 2006 by Burma’s then ruling military junta led by Senior General Than Shwe. Three years later, the military-backed Asia World Company signed a contract to build the dam with China Power Investment Corp.
The decision to halt the dam is a rare reversal for the new, nominally civilian government that took power in March following landmark elections in November.
It was also seen as part of a series of reform initiatives started in recent months by the government, which wants Western governments to lift long-running political and economic sanctions on it.
The halting of the dam is also a rare disagreement between Burma and China, which are neighbors and close allies. Some suggested the dam could be replaced by another joint venture.
“China may have given a lot of money to Asia World Company and some people in the government for this Myitsone project, but, I think, it can get another project [instead],” Aung Kyaw Zaw said.
“I don’t think this dam case will damage the relationship between China and Myanmar (Burma) as there are many areas in which China can do business in the country,” Jay Yaw Wu said.
Reported by RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Maung Maung Nyo. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.