In rare public comments about a controversial Chinese dam project, Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Su Kyi said Thursday that is important for her government to uphold investment projects approved by previous administrations or risk being perceived by investors as “not reliable and volatile.”
Speaking during a meeting on Thursday with residents of Pyay, a town in south-central Myanmar’s Bago region, Myanmar’s leader did not tip her hand on any decision regarding the suspended Myitsone Dam project in Kachin state.
But she urged people to be open-minded about mega-projects and assured them that the government would make decisions responsibly.
“Our people need to assess the situations broad-mindedly from diverse viewpoints, whether it is Myitsone Dam or any other massive projects,” she said. “We have to think strategically from all perspectives, politically, economically, socially, and environmentally. It is wrong to assess them from only one viewpoint.”
The U.S. $3.6-billion dam was started in 2009 but was put on hold two years later by former president Thein Sein and his military-backed administration because of widespread opposition to its environmental and social impacts.
The decision came much to the dismay of China, which has since been pushing the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government to allow the hydropower project resume.
“We need to keep our promises for the sake of integrity of the country,” Sung San Suu Kyi said. “We shouldn’t be inconsistent in what we said between different administrations.”
“Some large projects are initiated by the previous administration, but we cannot reject these undertakings during our administration,” she said. “If we do, people around the world would think we are not reliable and volatile. Then, investors will stay away from our country, and it will negatively affect the country.”
Aung San Suu Kyi said that the government would make responsible decisions about the hydropower project with transparency when it comes to protecting the natural environment.
“When we say environmental protection, I am not referring to keeping the natural environment intact; I am talking about protecting it from deterioration,” She said. “So, we have to do it in a responsible way. We will be transparent to show every decision to the public and explain why [we made the decision].”
Shoring up investment
Aung San Suu Kyi’s comments come at a time when China has ramped up pressure on Myanmar to allow it to restart the Myitsone Dam project and as Naypyidaw is trying to woo foreign investors to put money into infrastructure projects amid a worsening economy.
Armed conflict in Myanmar’s border regions, the country’s protectionist policies, and its stalling on reforms have all undermined investor interest.
About 10,000 people in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state staged a massive protest in February, demanding the complete halt of the hydropower project and condemning recent calls by China for the suspended project to resume.
Ethnic Kachins and leaders from local political parties and social organizations blasted a statement issued by China’s embassy in Myanmar in January following a visit to the state by Ambassador Hong Liang, claiming that local residents did not object to the project.
Later that same month, Thaung Tun, Myanmar’s minister for investment and foreign economic relations, said the government was working to find a solution on how to proceed with the dam and tried to justify the resumption of the project, saying that companies had already invested heavily in it.
The issue of restarting the Myitsone Dam project is expected to resurface before or during Aung San Suu Kyi’s trip to Beijing in April to attend a Belt and Road Initiative conference. While she is there, she will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
‘Not good for the country’
Those who still oppose the project took Aung San Suu Kyi to task for her comments at the community meeting.
“I am wondering when she will actually stand up for the country,” said Myanmar Supreme Court advocate Kyi Myint, who is also a legal advisor for the Mya Sein Yaung network group which opposes the Myitsone Dam.
“If she surrenders in the Myitsone project, she will be seen as the traitor of the country,” he said.
Prominent meteorologist Tun Lwin, who is the founder of Myanmar Climate Change Watch, said it is unacceptable for the current government to insist upon continuing the construction of the mega-dam, which he called “a mistake” by the previous administration and not beneficial for the country.
“There are many other rivers in Myanmar, and implementing a mid-size project is different,” he said. “But this one is massive and is located on the most crucial location in the country. It is not acceptable. We must renegotiate at all costs. If we continue, the country will be at risk and face great losses. I personally find it unacceptable that the ruling government should knowingly continue the apparent mistake from the past.”
“We should look out for the benefit of the people and the nation,” he said. “We already have [evidence] that the project is not good for the country.”
The 6,000-megawatt hydropower project originally entailed the building of seven dams around the confluence of the Mali and N’Mai rivers that form the Irrawaddy River in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state.
Former President Thein Sein had stopped the project amid protests over its enormous flooding area and detrimental environmental impact, as well as anger over the fact that most of its electricity would be exported to China.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who as opposition NLD leader at that time was one of the dam’s most vocal opponents, assured Beijing that Myanmar was willing to come up with an appropriate resolution that would suit both countries after her party won the 2015 general elections.
However, the lack of a decision by the current NLD government on whether the project can now proceed has strained relations between Myanmar and China.
Reported by Thiri Min Zin for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.