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Myanmar

Myanmar cardinal wants dam project halted

Project will cause massive environmental destruction and negatively impact local people

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Myanmar cardinal wants dam project halted

Cardinal Charles Maung Bo talks during an interview at his office in Yangon on Jan. 6, two days after Pope Francis named him one of 20 new cardinals, majority of them from Africa, Asia and Latin America. (Photo by Soe Than Win/AFP)

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Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon is urging Myanmar's newly elected government to halt the controversial Myitsone dam project in Kachin state, which is widely viewed as environmentally and culturally destructive.

Cardinal Bo said Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy that won the Nov. 8 election, said before the poll that a government is elected by support from the people.

"So if she really wants to fulfill the desire of the people, she should try to end the project completely. And she should follow the desire of the ethnic Kachin people," Cardinal Bo told ucanews.com.

The US$3.8 billion dam is being built on the Irrawaddy River, Myanmar's premier waterway for hydro electricity that will be used almost exclusively in neighboring China, providing 6,000 megawatts of electricity.

It will be the 15th largest hydroelectric power station in the world if completed as planned by 2017. It will be 1,310 meters long and 139.6 meters high.

By 2010, the dam's construction caused at least 2,000 people to be relocated from their ancestral homes in Aung Myin Thar village.

The military-backed government of President Thein Sein suspended construction in September 2011, while China vigorously agitated for recommencing work on the project

"The Irrawaddy is our mother and our life-blood river so ending the project is not only the will of ethnic Kachins but also the people of Myanmar," Cardinal Bo said.

He promised to speak out on the issue "when I get a chance to meet with Suu Kyi personally."

Cardinal Bo told ucanews.com during an interview at his residence in Yangon's St. Mary's Cathedral compound that he also raised concerns on another China-backed project — a copper mine in central Myanmar — and questioned the outgoing government's relationship with China and neighboring India.

"No matter how (much) we need good relationships with neighboring countries such as China, the Suu Kyi-led new government should consider the will of the people in Myanmar," Cardinal Bo said.

He warned that an accident during the dam's construction could destroy several villages, while environmental destruction caused by the dam will largely impact local people.

In his pre-election 10-point guide about choosing candidates, Cardinal Bo referred to the dam project, encouraging voters to choose candidates and parties that "safeguard the country's nature and natural resources, protecting our forests and not selling our sacred rivers and resources to foreign powers."

Khet Htain Nan, a Christian lawmaker from the Unity and Democracy Party in Kachin State, also said the new government should not let the massive dam project continue as people and experts have opposed it.

"In a democracy, the government should listen to the voices of the people so a new government also needs to listen to the voices and desire of the people in Myanmar," Khet Htain Nan told ucanews.com.

Suu Kyi toured Kachin State prior to the elections and during a meeting with Christian leaders on Oct. 2 promised she would try to address the dam project, which remains unpopular with many people in Kachin.

Critics have long accused Suu Kyi of dodging a strong commitment to Myanmar's diverse ethnic groups that surround the more populous center of the country. In Kachin, critics say, she and her party have failed to speak out about fighting in the state, which erupted in June 2011 following the breakdown of a 17-year cease-fire between Myanmar's military and Kachin rebels.

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