By Robin Gomes
A Myanmar Church official has expressed anxiety over the restarting of the China-backed Myitsone dam project on the Irrawaddy River in the conflict-torn northern state of Kachin.
The concerns grew with the historic state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Myanmar, January 17-18. This is Xi's first visit to China’s southern neighbour and the first visit of any Chinese president in 19 years.
Bishop Raymond Sumlut Gam of Banmaw in Kachin State has expressed concerns over the revival of the controversial Myitsone mega-dam project with this visit.
“The Church’s stance is on the dam’s impact on both the environment and on the people,” Bishop Gam told UCA News.
He said Myanmar and China leaders might talk about restarting the project, suspended in 2017. However, China may not further push for the project’s revival as it is likely to face strong opposition from the people, affecting other development projects.
“We are awaiting the answers on the fate of Myitsone with bated breath,” he said.
More than 40 Kachin organizations have called on Xi to permanently cancel the Myitsone Dam project.
The US$3.6 billion project on the Irrawaddy, Myanmar's main waterway, aims to produce 6,000 megawatts of hydroelectricity that will be supplied almost entirely to neighbouring China.
By 2010, the construction of the dam had caused at least 3,000 people to be relocated from their homes to newly built villages. The military-backed government of President Thein Sein suspended construction in September 2011, but China has vigorously called for work to resume.
In June 2019, the Catholic bishops of Myanmar called for the complete shutdown of Myitsone dam. The bishops pleaded for all dam stakeholders to review the project and “stop it permanently” for the sake of the people.
Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon has been vehemently opposing the restarting of the stalled dam. In a press release in January last year, entitled “Stop Trafficking Our Mother Irrawaddy”, he called the dam an “environmental disaster” and “a death sentence for the people of Myanmar.”
The cardinal, who is the president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, said the dam will deprive millions of farmers of their livelihood in a nation where 80 per cent of the population depends on agriculture.
“Millions stand to lose their livelihoods. Environmental and economic catastrophes are already predicted by the scientific community,” the cardinal said in a statement in April 2019.
At the end of the 2-day visit, Xi and Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi signed 33 agreements backing key projects that are part of the flagship Belt and Road Initiative, China’s vision of new trade routes described as a “21st-century silk road”. It includes the Kyaukpyu deep-sea port in Rakhine and a high-speed rail line running east to west.
However, the Myitsone dam did not feature in the agreements.