MYANMAR: Dam busters fight back

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– Resistance is growing to a hydroelectric dam being built at the beginning of the Ayeyarwady River in Myanmar’s northern Kachin State, with several campaigns to halt construction under way.

Opponents to the Myitsone Dam have been collecting signatures, circulating posters, organizing meetings, and speaking out to foreign media. Some residents affected by the dam project have remained in their villages as a form of silent resistance.

“The government should listen to the voice of the people, if they really practise a democratic system,” Bauk Char, a Kachin activist, who has been calling for a halt to the dam’s construction, told IRIN.

Environmentalists say the dam, with a flooding area larger than Singapore, will have a devastating impact on the environment and livelihoods. More than 15,000 people in 60 villages are being forced to relocate without proper resettlement plans, according to the Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG).

“This kind of undemocratic resource exploitation by the Burma [Myanmar] military government can never be sustainable and never lead to peace and reconciliation in Burma,” Ah Nan, a KDNG spokeswoman, said. “War has already started in Kachin State and will only get worse if this exploitation continues.”

Fighting broke out in June between government forces and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the military wing of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), ending a 17-year ceasefire and displacing more than 25,000 people.

The dam – a joint effort by Myanmar’s military government and the China Power Investment Corporation – is expected to produce 6,000MW of electricity that the government will sell to China, bringing in more than US$500 million annually. Construction began in 2009, just 1.6km below the confluence of Mali and N’Mai rivers – the natural heritage and cultural heartland of the Kachin people, locally known as Myitsone.

“We’ll never back down”

Resistance to the project has escalated in response to a recent announcement by Zaw Min, Minister of Electric Power, who said at a press conference in Naypyidaw, the capital, that the government would proceed with the project despite objections. Government officials maintain the dam will not affect water levels on the Ayeyarwady River, nor have any adverse environmental effects, saying it will utilize only 7 percent of the water flow.

“We’ll keep working on the Myitsone Project. We’ll never back down,” Zaw Min said. “We won’t halt this project in spite of objections from environmental groups.”

Zaw Min is also being criticized for saying the government is providing as much as 1,500MW for domestic use – way beyond current demand. That is why the government, he said, can sell surplus electricity to other countries in the future.

“This is not true,” said Myat Thu, an organizer for one of the campaigns to save the Ayeyarwady, Myanmar’s longest river, which provides millions of people with a livelihood. “A large part of the country has seen severe power shortages.”

According to government figures, only 2,000 out of about 60,000 villages across the nation have access to electricity. Some parts of Yangon, the country’s largest city and commercial capital, experience frequent blackouts.

Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate, has joined the growing appeals to save the Ayeyarwady and called for a reassessment of the Myitsone Dam, which would be 152m high when it is completed in 2017.

“We’ll keep raising the public awareness [on the dam issue] by holding talks, by delivering stickers, etc.,” said Win Cho, a politician and activist calling for a halt to the dam project. “We will keep inviting more people to join with us.”

from IRIN

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