Myanmar to stop construction of controversial dam

Associated Press

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar's president called Friday for work on a controversial Chinese-backed hydroelectic dam to be halted and the concerns of its critics settled, in a startling turnaround welcomed by democracy activists and environmentalists.

President Thein Sein said in a statement read out on his behalf at Parliament that the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam project in the northern state of Kachin should be suspended because "it is against the will of the people."

Thein Sein said all construction would be stopped for the duration of his term — at least until 2015 — in a striking reversal for the government. Earlier this month, Electric Power Minister Zaw Min had vowed the project would go ahead despite swelling public opposition and widespread criticism.

The construction by Chinese state-owned companies already had been under way, and it was not clear how Myanmar's decision would affect relations with Beijing, which had no immediate reaction to the announcement.

Thein Sein's statement said Myanmar would discuss pending contracts regarding the dam with China.

Environmental activists have said the dam would displace countless villagers and upset the ecology of one of the country's most vital national resources, the Irrawaddy River. It also would submerge a culturally important site in the ethnic Kachin heartland where the Malikha and Maykha rivers meet to form the Irrawaddy.

The Myitsone dam was supposed to export about 90 percent of electric power it generated to neighboring China, according to the government. The vast majority of Myanmar's residents, meanwhile, have no electricity.

"This is the first time in 50 years that the government has given in to the wishes of the people," said Dr. Than Tut Aung, a prominent publisher who is also one of the leading advocates of the "Save the Irrawaddy" campaign. "The decision to suspend the dam project is not just an environmental issue but a national issue. We welcome the good news."

The United States also welcomed the decision. Washington is seeking to engage Myanmar, also known as Burma, after years of isolating it for its poor human rights record.

"We consider it a significant and positive step that the Burmese government is endeavoring in this case to respond to the concerns of its people and to promote national reconciliation on this issue which had been a source of tension within Burma," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news conference in Washington.

"We hope that this kind of positive progress can continue."

Thein Sein came to power in March after the nation's long-standing junta disbanded, promising to bring democratic reforms to one of Asia's most repressive nations.

But skeptics see his government — dominated by retired military officers — as a proxy for continued army rule, and there has been much debate over whether his reform pledges are merely rhetoric.

The new government has boosted hope for change by unblocking the long-censored Internet, calling on exiles to return, and holding talks with prominent opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released from seven years of house arrest last year.

Yet more than 2,000 political prisoners remain behind bars, while fighting with multiple armed ethnic rebellions has displaced about half a million people within the country and forced at least 200,000 more to flee abroad.

On Friday, Suu Kyi met for a third time with Labor and Social Welfare Minister Aung Kyi, part of an ongoing dialogue between the two sides that some see as proof the that concrete change is imminent.

Afterward, Suu Kyi said she welcomed Thein Sein's message on suspending the Myitsone dam.

"All governments should listen to the voices of the people," she said.

Last month, Suu Kyi joined forces with activists opposing the project. She said about 12,000 people from 63 villages had already been forced from their land. The government has put the figure far lower, saying around 2,000 people have been relocated.

Thein Sein's statement was read out during a Parliament session in the capital, Naypyitaw, by lower house speaker Thura Shwe Mann.

"We have to honor the wishes of the people and we have to seriously consider and settle the concerns of the people," the statement said. "Hence, the construction of Myitsone hydropower dam project shall be suspended."

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei had no immediate reaction to the developments, telling a daily news conference he had to "verify the situation you have raised."

With China on the eve of a weeklong national holiday, major state-run companies involved in the project — China Power Investment Corp., China Gezhouba Group Corp. and China Southern Power Grid Corp. — either deferred comment or did not answer telephone queries.

Environmental groups say such projects are helping fuel violence in the region as government forces struggle to secure them. In June, fighting broke out in Kachin state for the first time in nearly two decades at the site other Chinese-backed dam projects opposed by rebels and local residents.

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Associated Press researcher Yu Bing in Beijing and writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.

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