'Transparency needed' over Myitsone Dam project

China-backed scheme remains highly unpopular with Myanmar people, says Kachin bishop
'Transparency needed' over Myitsone Dam project

This picture taken on Feb. 25, 2012, shows part of a controversial China-backed hydropower project in Kachin. The project was due to produce electricity for China but the then president Thein Sein ordered a halt to construction in September 2011. (Photo by AFP)

A bishop in Myanmar has called for transparency over the fate of a suspended China-backed hydropower project following reports of increased Chinese pressure to restart it.

Bishop Raymond Sumlut Gam of Banmaw in Kachin State has asked Aung San Suu Kyi's government to inform the public about the status of the Myitsone Dam project, which has been suspended since September 2011.

“It is the right time to inform the public because a lack of transparency from the government is worrying the people,” Bishop Gam, an ethnic Kachin, told ucanews.com.

The bishop said people feared the Myanmar government might make a compromise with Beijing to restart the project, which was suspended due to environmental and cultural concerns.

Last week, Thaung Tun, chairman of Myanmar's investment commission, said negotiations between the two governments have been ongoing. He said alternatives have been suggested such as downsizing or relocation, but he did not indicate what was preferred.

Bishop Gam said a restarting of the project built on waters feeding the Irrawaddy River — Myanmar's premier waterway — would again meet strong opposition from the public.

“Unnecessary problems may arise across the country if China keeps pressuring about this unpopular project,” said the bishop. The project is not only “an issue of Kachins but also the people across Myanmar.”

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

Much to the displeasure of China, the military-backed government of then president Thein Sein suspended construction in September 2011.

Most of the proposed electricity produced by the US$3.8 billion dam project would go to neighboring China.

Chinese ambassador

Renewed concerns over the project follow a December visit by Chinese ambassador Hong Liang to Kachin State where he met with political parties and social organizations.

Two weeks after the meeting, China's embassy in Yangon released a statement saying the Kachin community were not against the project but some outside individuals and social organizations were.

The pressure over the dam comes as China has been providing diplomatic cover for Aung San Suu Kyi's government over the Rohingya crisis.

Myanmar also depends on Beijing’s help to deal with several ethnic armed groups along the borders with China.

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The Chinese government has been pushing the Myanmar government and armed groups along the border region to end fighting to allow investments to proceed, including strategic infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative and the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor.

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