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    Southeast Asia
     Sep 22, 2011

Irrawaddy dam test for Myanmar resolve
By Brian McCartan

CHIANG MAI - Zaw Min, Myanmar's Minister for Electric Power-1, insists that the country's controversial US$3.6 billion Myitsone hydropower dam project will proceed as scheduled. Misgivings about the mega-project abound as a growing list of activists, intellectuals, parliamentarians and even former military generals have lined up against it in a protest that promises to put the new democracy to its first substantive policy test.

Zaw Win said during a September 10 press briefing in Naypyidaw that the mega-project would go ahead regardless of widespread objections, proclaiming that the proposed electricity-generating facility is in the country's national interest. "We will finish the project within eight years," he said, "and I will answer 'No' to the

question of the environmental groups who asked, 'Will the project be stopped?'"

Concern over the mega-project was raised on September 17 at a seminar held in Naypyidaw attended by government officials, scholars, members of non-governmental organizations, researchers and representatives of the Chinese firm leading the mega-project. Rather than a rubber-stamp exercise, as similar meetings held during the period of direct military rule often were, there appears to have been a lively debate on the issue.

The Myitsone dam is to be built at the confluence of the Mali Hka and Nmai Hka Rivers, both of which form the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River. It is the largest of seven dams to be constructed in Kachin State by the state-owned China Power Investment Corporation (CPI) on the Irrawaddy and its tributaries. The Chinese company is partnered with the state-owned Myanmar Electric Power Enterprise (MEPE) and Asia World Co Ltd.

Asia World is owned by Steven Law, alias Tun Myint Naing, the son of alleged narcotics trafficker Lo Hsing Han. Both men are on the United States' sanctions lists for having suspected connections to narcotics trafficking and for the assistance their company, Myanmar's largest conglomerate, has rendered to the military regime. Since 2009, Asia World also appears to have secured lucrative contracts to extract timber and mine gold from the dam site.

A memorandum of understanding (MoU) for the project was first signed more than four years ago between the Ministry of Electric Power-1 and CPI. This was followed by another agreement concerning Myitsone and other dams during Chinese Vice President Xin Jinping's visit to Myanmar in December 2009.

The 152-meter high, concrete and rock fill dam will generate 6,000 megawatts of electricity. Construction on the dam began in December 2009 and, according to Zaw Min, will be completed in 2018. The dam's massive reservoir, which is scheduled to inundate 766 square kilometers of forest land, is expected to be filled by 2019.

Revenue from the dam is projected to earn between $558 million and $597 million per year for government coffers. Most of the electricity produced by the dam, however, will be exported to neighboring China. Under an agreement signed by Chinese and Myanmar officials, CPI will receive 70% of the project's profits while MEPE and Asia World will jointly receive 20%. The remaining 10% will be distributed as "broker fees", according to the agreement.

Zaw Min noted that a third party had been hired to conduct an impact assessment at a cost of $1.25 million. The former general may have been referring to a 945-page environmental impact assessment conducted and completed in 2009 by the Burmese non-governmental organization Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association (BANCA). However, Zaw Min's claim is somewhat disingenuous since the report recommended that the project should be scrapped.

The report was suppressed by CPI and never publicly released. However, it was leaked two years later, likely by Chinese scholars opposed to the dam. The report recommended not building the dam at the confluence of the Mali Hka and Nmai Hka Rivers but instead constructing two smaller dams upriver. It warned that the Myitsone dam site was less than 100 kilometers from the Sagaing fault line and at risk of damage from earthquakes.

Legislative test
Although no decision was reached at the recent seminar on whether to suspend the controversial mega-project, the dispute seems to be growing and there is speculation that the pros and cons of the dam may eventually be brought before the newly seated parliament. If so, it would provide the new legislature with its first real test to debate an issue of national import and which has seemingly divided even the former military men in the President Thein Sein's government.

Personality politics are at play. Zaw Min is considered close to former junta supremo Senior General Than Shwe, who is suspected of still calling policy shots from behind the scenes of Thein Sein's elected administration. Border Affairs Minister Thein Htay, another former general, has also openly defended the mega-project. Most crucially, perhaps, the dam is also supported by vice president and former lieutenant general Tin Aung Myint Oo, the leader of a hardline faction inside the new government.

At the recent seminar, however, the dam's merits were questioned by Minister for Industry-1 and Industry-2, Soe Thein, a former vice-admiral, and Win Tun, the current Minister for Environmental Conservation and Forestry. President Thein Sein, who appears to lead a more reform-minded faction of the government, is also believed to be concerned about the mega-project's downsides.

Popular opposition to the dam has grown in recent months. In January, Win Tin, co-founder of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, said he was "deeply concerned" by the project's potential to raise ethnic tensions and cause environmental degradation.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD's general-secretary, wrote an open letter on August 11 entitled "Irrawaddy Appeal" which discussed the dearth of planning, failure to enforce laws on conservation and poor ecological awareness that have caused numerous problems across the country. She reiterated her appeal to the government and China to re-evaluate the project following Zaw Min's announcement.

Myanmar's intellectual circles have also galvanized opposition to the dam. Around 1,600 people, including prominent artists and writers, signed a petition this month urging Thein Sein to halt the mega-project. They also called for international experts to carry out research and a publicly disclose their findings about the dam's potential impacts. In addition to the petition, they have organized public talks and distributed information on the project.

Certain parliamentarians have also voiced dissatisfaction with the project. Last week, they commented that large projects that affect the environment should be approved by parliament before commencing. Others announced that they would ask the Supreme Court to issue an injunction against continued work on the Myitsone dam and demand greater public disclosure on the project if more information was not provided by the end of the current parliamentary session.

Local Kachin near the dam site and elsewhere in Kachin State have together with environmental groups organized a "Save the Irrawaddy" movement in a civil society-led bid to stop the dam's construction. The insurgent Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) has also become involved.

In May, KIO chairman Lanyaw Zawng Hra sent an official letter to Chinese president Hu Jintao urging him to halt the project. He warned that continued work on the dam and other hydropower projects in the region could lead to civil war. He pointed to the increase in Myanmar army units stationed in the area to provide security to the construction sites and the need for the KIO to protect its territory.

He also said the KIO would not be responsible if war broke out as a consequence of the hydropower projects. In June, fighting broke out between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the military wing of the KIO, and the Myanmar army at another dam site at Dapein, to the south of the Myitsone site. The Dapein dam was being built by MEPE and the China Datang Corporation, another Chinese state-owned company, but construction has recently been halted.

Over 30,000 people have been displaced by the fighting, which has spread to other areas of Kachin State, including the vicinity of the Myitsone dam site. On September 1, the KIO warned CPI employees not to enter the construction area due to the ongoing conflict. Earlier this month, the KIO claimed its KIA 3rd Battalion had stopped the transport of construction materials along the Waimaw-Kantipai Road from China to the dam site, resulting in a halt to construction activities.

Criticism of the project is multifaceted. One main concern is the impact it will have on the environment and biodiversity in both the dam's area and downstream. Environmentalists are concerned that it will result in depleted fish stocks and severely impact agricultural production as far downstream as the Irrawaddy River Delta, where more than half of the country's rice is cultivated.

The project site is also located in the so-called Mizoram-Manipur-Kachin rainforest region, a globally-recognized biodiversity hot spot and a priority region for conservation.

The social consequences are also expected to be dire. The Kachin Development and Networking Group (KDNG), which has monitored the project closely and written several reports on its likely impacts, has warned that around 15,000 Kachin could be directly displaced by the dam while millions more would be impacted downstream.

Several thousand villagers have already been moved due to dam-related construction activities. Activists say the military has intimidated villagers into moving and that relocation sites are poorly organized with insufficient farmland, water, health and education facilities. Ethnic Kachins say that numerous churches, temples and cultural heritage sites central to their culture and history will be submerged by the dam.

Opposition to the Myitisone dam would likely have been suppressed as a potential threat to the state by the former Than Shwe-led junta. This time, however, grassroots activists have surprisingly been joined by opposition parliamentarians and even members of the former military elite in what appears to be a genuine debate about the national interest.

While certainly not a formal alliance - and some of the elites and parliamentarians may be motivated more by vested interests than democratic conscience - the Myitsone dam is testing the limits of Myanmar's new democracy.

Brian McCartan is a Bangkok-based freelance journalist. He may be reached at brianpm@comcast.net.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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