MANDALAY (UCAN): Church officials in Myanmar and displaced Kachin villagers have expressed unease over restarting the China-backed Myitsone dam project in conflict-torn Kachin State.
The concerns arose as China’s president, Xi Jinping, was in Naypyitaw, the remote capital of Myanmar, for an historic state visit from January 17 to 18.
Xi met with state counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, military chief Min Aung Hlaing and other political figures and legislators.
Bishop Raymond Sumlut Gam of Banmaw in Kachin State had planned to voice concerns on the fate of the controversial China-backed dam megaproject.
“The Church’s stance is on the dam’s impact on both the environment and on the people,” he said.
The bishop said the leaders of Myanmar and China might talk about restarting the project which was suspended in 2017. However, China may not push for its 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 $29.5 billion(US$3.8 billion) project on the Irrawaddy, Myanmar’s main waterway, aims to provide hydroelectricity that will be supplied almost exclusively to neighbouring China.
By 2010, the dam’s construction had resulted in the displacement of at least 3,000 people who were relocated from their homes to newly built villages.
The military-backed government of the country’s president, Thein Sein, suspended construction in September 2011, but China has vigorously called for work to resume.
“We are still worried that the China-backed megaproject may be restarted,” Bernadette Ja Hkawng from Tangphre village, said. The Kachin 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,” she said.
During his two-day visit, Xi signed a series of trade pacts as part of China’s Belt and Road initiative including Kyaukpyu deep-sea port in Rakhine.
According to a Januar 18 report in the South China Morning Post, 33 memoranda of understanding, agreements, exchange letters and protocols, 13 of which were related to infrastructure, were signed by the two countries.
Beijing has been 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 United Nations Security Council over atrocities by its military against the Rohingya.
In June 2019, the Catholic bishops of Myanmar called for the complete shutdown of the Myitsone dam. The bishops pleaded for all dam stakeholders to review the project and “stop it permanently” for the sake of the people.
In a statement in April 2019, Charles Cardinal Maung Bo of Yangon said, “Millions stand to lose their livelihoods. Environmental and economic catastrophes are already predicted by the scientific community.”
The outspoken cardinal, who is also the head of Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences, has called it an “environmental disaster” and “a death sentence for the people of Myanmar.”