Myanmar Church concerned over restarting China-backed dam

Catholic officials and Kachin villagers voice opposition to the stalled controversial hydropower project
Myanmar Church concerned over restarting China-backed dam

More than a thousand Myanmar demonstrators rally demanding the government to permanently stop the construction of Myitsone dam in Myitkyina, capital of Kachin state on February 7, 2019. (Photo: Zau Ring Hpra/AFP)

Myanmar Church officials and displaced Kachin villagers have expressed unease over restarting the China-backed Myitsone dam project in the conflict-torn Kachin State.

The concerns come as China’s President Xi Jinping arrives in Naypyitaw, the remote capital of Myanmar, for a historic state visit on Jan.17-18.

Xi is scheduled to meet with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, military chief Min Aung Hlaing and other political figures and legislators.

Bishop Raymond Sumlut Gam of Banmaw in Kachin State said he will raise concerns on the fate of the controversial China-backed dam megaproject as China’s president visits the country.

“The Church’s stance is on the dam’s impact on both the environment and on the people,” Bishop Gam told UCA News.

He said Myanmar and China leaders might talk about restarting the project, suspended in 2017. However, China may not further push for the project’s revival as it is likely to face strong opposition from the people, affecting other development projects.

“We are awaiting the answers on the fate of Myitsone with bated breath,” he said.

The US$3.8 billion project on the Irrawaddy, Myanmar's main waterway, aims to provide hydroelectricity that will be supplied almost exclusively to neighboring China.

By 2010, the dam's construction had caused at least 3,000 people to be relocated from their homes to newly built villages.

The military-backed government of president Thein Sein suspended construction in September 2011, but China has vigorously called for work to resume on the project.

“We are still worried that the China-backed megaproject may be restarted,” said Bernadette Ja Hkawng from Tangphre village, a Catholic Kachin who was forced to move to Aung Myin Thar, a freshly built relocation village, in 2010.

“We have called on Myanmar and Chinese leaders to completely stop the project as it is not only the Kachin but people across the country strongly oppose it.”

During his two-day visit, Xi is expected to sign a series of trade pacts as part of China’s Belt and Road initiative including Kyaukpyu deep-sea port in Rakhine and a high-speed rail line running east to west.

Beijing is pushing Myanmar’s government, military and armed groups along its border to end fighting as stability will allow investment to proceed, including strategic infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road initiative and the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor.

China has shielded Myanmar from international pressure and punitive action from the UN Security Council over alleged atrocities by its military against the Rohingya.

In June 2019, Catholic bishops in Myanmar jointly called for the complete shutdown of the China-backed Myitsone dam.

The bishops pleaded for all dam stakeholders to review the project and “stop it permanently” for the sake of the people.

Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon has appealed to Myanmar and Chinese leaders not to resume the stalled Myitsone dam.

“Millions stand to lose their livelihoods. Environmental and economic catastrophes are already predicted by the scientific community,” Bo said in a statement in April 2919.

The outspoken cardinal, who is also the head of Catholic Bishops Conferences of Asia, has called it an “environmental disaster” and “a death sentence for the people of Myanmar.”

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