Approving the controversial China-backed Myitsone Dam project in Kachin state would constitute “political suicide” for Myanmar’s new opposition government, an activist warned at a panel discussion in Washington, D.C. Wednesday.
One of the earliest big-ticket decisions that the National League for Democracy (NLD) government will have to make is what to do with the $3.6 billion hydropower project, which was temporarily suspended by former President Thein Sein in 2011 amid concerns about environmental degradation and dislocation.
Over the past few weeks, Beijing has ramped up its charm offensive to promote the project, with China’s ambassador to Myanmar Hong Lang himself meeting with state government representatives earlier this month. The Diplomat understands that Chinese investors have also been stressing that there may have to be some kind of financial compensation if the project is reviewed or canceled entirely.
Asked what the government should do in the face of Chinese pressure, Saw Alex Htoo, the deputy director of the Karen Economic and Social Action Network (KESAN) and the acting director of IFI Watch Myanmar, told an audience at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, that due to the high politicization of the project, approving it would amount to political suicide.
“Restarting [it] would be political suicide for the Myanmar government,” he said in response to a question from The Diplomat on the options for Naypyidaw.
He added that China “should respect” the wishes of the people rather than continuing to extoll the benefits of the project.
Popular opposition to the dam was on display earlier this month, when dozens of residents in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, staged a brief protest to demand a cancelation of the project outside the Palm Spring Resort hotel where the Chinese envoy was meeting state government representatives.
The view is far from a fringe one. On June 7, The Irrawaddy issued a hard-hitting editorial similarly arguing that resuming the Myitsone Dam could lead to the downfall of the new government.
“If the NLD government decides to resume the Myitsone Dam, the Burmese people will demand that they leave office. China should understand this,” the editorial read.
Asked at the Carnegie event to comment on what the economic implications might be for Myanmar if it chooses not to go ahead with the project and has to compensate Chinese investors, Yongzheng Yang, the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF’s) mission chief for Myanmar said it would depend on how the government chooses to deal with the issue.
He said he had not discussed specifics of the project with the new government.