Ad hoc panel discussion and the Myitsone dam controversy

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On April 20, an ad hoc panel discussion attended by some 700 people titled “Will Redeem Back The Irrawaddy” headed by the Metta Development Foundation, Paung Ku and the Tharthi Myay Foundation, together with other 7 organizations, including prominent civil society leaders, environmentalists and film stars was successfully held in Yangon, Novotel Hotel.

The one dollar collection campaign initiative from the public to compensate China in exchange for scrapping the controversial Myitsone dam was aired, including an open appeal letter to China’s president Xi Jingpin in Burmese, which emphasized panel title is widely distributed in social media.

The proposed dam cost estimation is said to be US$3.6-billion (5.4 trillion Kyats) and the Chinese company behind the project said Myanmar will owe US$ 800 million in compensation if the government cancels the dam.

Myitsone dam in Kachin state
asiatimes.com : More than 1,000 Myanmar demonstrators demanded the government permanently stop construction of the Myitsone dam in Kachin state on February 7, 2019. Photo: AFP/Zau Ring/HPRA

 

Rejection of Ethnic political parties and religious groups

On April 5, during the meeting of old members of Committee Representing People’s Parliament (CRPP), which National League for Democracy (NLD) headed together with other MPs from ethnic political parties between 1990 to 2011 during the military reign, and other like-minded political parties, Shan Nationalities League for Democracy leader Khun Tun Oo regarding the Myitsone dam said that it is like the innermost (heart) of the people and if it isn’t handled in an appropriate way, the 1990 MPs group will not be idle doing nothing with folding hands, but will personally head the protest.

Earlier, three Kachin political parties the Kachin National Congress (KNC), Kachin State Democracy Party (KSDP) and Kachin Democratic Party (KDP) issued a joint statement on January 14, stating that they desired to totally stop Myitsone dam project. Reportedly, prior to this the three Kachin political parties met with Mr. Hong Liang, Chinese Ambassador to Myanmar in Myitkyina on December 29 in 2018.

On March 1, chairman of Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) Hkalam Samson met China’s ambassador to Myanmar and other Chinese diplomats where increased pressure to restart the Myitsone dam message was delivered. He reportedly advised the Chinese officials to take up the issue with the Myanmar public more broadly, because its impact extends beyond the Kachin community.

Myitsone dam in Kachin state
Protesters fill the streets of Kachin state’s Waingmaw township to demand the Myitsone dam project be canceled.

On April 17, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon has made a passionate plea in video message to all stakeholders to stop any effort to dam the Irrawaddy river.

“We are deeply concerned and worried. There are signs that extreme pressure is being brought on our leaders to restart the Myitsone Dam,” Cardinal Bo said.

“Millions stand to lose their livelihoods. Environmental and economic catastrophes are already predicted by the scientific community.”

He also sent letters quite recently calling for a halt to the Myitsone project to Aung San Suu Kyi, president Win Myint, commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, and sent out a letter with the same plea, written in Chinese, to the Chinese government.

Other religious leaders like the Venerable U Seindita, a Buddhist monk from Asia Light Monastery and promoter of interfaith harmony in Myanmar, Hindu religious leader Hla Htun and Al-Haji U Nyunt Maung Shein, president of Burma’s Islamic Religious Affairs Council, also echoed the same saying: “the government should not be procrastinating when people already have shown their opposition to this project,” according to the RFA April 19 report.

 

NLD doubtful position

Beijing’s efforts to revive and resume the dam project angered the people. Even more so when the Chinese Ambassador Hong Liang claimed that the Kachin people were not opposed to the dam’s resumption after his Kachin state’s visit in December. A series of protests followed in major cities thereafter calling for the project to be scrapped.

The NLD government so far hasn’t made public its view on whether the project should resume or be terminated. On top that the recent remarks of state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi suggesting that governments ought to respect the deals made by their predecessors have raised public concerns and interpreted that the suspended dam project would resume.

On April 24, Suu Kyi flew to Beijing for the second BRI meeting of 150 nations, where some top leaders from 40 countries will be present. She will no doubt discuss about a variety of mega projects, including the Myitsone dam with her Chinese host.

 

Ad hoc panel discussion

Redeem back the Irrawaddy panel discussion of April 20 issued a five point open letter addressed to China’s president Xi Jingpin. The gist and unofficial translation reads:

Save the Irrawaddy
Panelists participate in the ‘Save the Irrawaddy by Offering Compensation’ forum at the Novotel Hotel in Yangon on Saturday. / Htet Wai / The Irrawaddy
  1. News to restart the Myitsone dam which was suspended since 2011 tremendously worries the people.
  2. Chief worries are: the dry up of national symbol Irrawaddy; destruction of Kachin’s cultural heritage; environmental degradation; and deterioration of conflict-filled peace process.
  3. The implementation of the project by all means will be taken as suppression of Myanmar’s dignity and being bullied by the successive generations. The good opportunity given under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) between China and Myamar will be jeopardized and hard to repair.
  4. The people of Myanmar cannot accept Myitsone and other dams along the Irrawaddy. That is why we would like to propose the solution of redemption by paying back all official expenditure and investment of China according to the Myitsone dam contract.
  5. BRI denotes the cooperation of all countries and their peoples and we take this notion seriously. We appeal to the president to accept our proposal of redeeming back the Myitsone project through compensation.

 

On the heels of it on April 22, thousands of people in Waingmaw, Kachin state, took to the streets to protest against the proposed reinstatement of Myitsone dam, which they are convinced would cause tremendous environmental damage with little benefit to the country.

 

Analysis

The general opinion of the public is no doubt the total suspension of the Myitsone dam and anything to do with the damming of the Irrawaddy along the river.

But the NLD regime seems to be keen to go along with the wish of the Chinese constructor. As for the Tatmadaw, what the commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing recently said on his China visit could be taken as an affirmative endorsement of BRI, which in effect means that the resuming of Myitsone dam will also be in order.

The question then is if the civilian-military regime will push through the said project despite the public protest and rejection. If the answer is yes, a turbulent mass civil disobedience will likely follow. If no, or if temporary suspension is worked out, the prospect of the NLD regaining its seemingly lost ground  in ethnic states could perhaps be reversed to a certain degree.

Moreover, if the ex-president Thein Sein have the guts, who belongs to the former military top brass class, to suspend it for five years during his tenure to accommodate the people’s desire, Suu Kyi shouldn’t have a problem to do likewise, with just two more years to go before the election.

In such a scenario, the upcoming 2020 election will become a lively and issue-based competition with the electorates having to make profound judgment, which will be somewhat different from personality-based choice of 2015 election.

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