This September 30 will mark the two years anniversary of the suspension of the Myitsone Dam and once again, there is talk of resuming the project. In 2011, the controversial dam, built by state-owned China Power Investment (CPI) was shelved by Burmese President Thein Sein until 2015. Since the project’s suspension there have been intermittent reports that construction will begin again, but despite much anticipation on the Chinese side, none of these rumors have led to any action on the project. However, reports in the last month hint at a greater possibility of resuming construction. Does Myitsone really have a future?
This latest round of discussion of Myitsone’s revival started last month with China’s Ambassador to Burma, Yang Houlan. In an interview with the Irrawaddy Magazine, published August 15, Ambassador Yang stated that the Chinese government supported a resumption of construction on the $3.6 billion project. However, while he made clear that the Chinese are for the completion of the dam, the Ambassador added that any action on the project would have to be approved by the Burmese. “China’s view is that we hope we can revive the project,” he said. “But of course, we respect the Myanmar government’s decision and we also respect the people’s views.” The hydropower project, which is located in northeast Burma’s Kachin State, was suspended in 2011 after intense public disapproval of the project and nationwide protests. It is unknown whether or not further construction on the dam would lead to public outcry like that seen in 2010 and 2011.
Just last Wednesday, more fuel was added to the fire, this time by the director of CPI, Wang Qiyue. While attending an energy investment summit in Yangon, Mr. Wang said that his company “cannot restart the dam construction project or the negotiation process with the Myanmar government” at present. “The next incoming government will hopefully do what is best.” He continued, saying, “We will just have to wait and see how the next government manages the issue. They [the Burma government] may try their best. Whatever we do, we will discuss with them.” While President Thein Sein has indicated that he will not seek a second term in 2015, both Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Laureate and current Burmese opposition leader, and Shwe Mann, current speaker of the House of Representatives, are expected to run in the election. Suu Kyi was one of the leaders of the anti-dam campaign and is not expected to approve any further construction on the dam. Shwe Mann’s views on the project are unknown.
During the same speech, Mr. Wang also released information on the project’s finances. According to Mr. Wang, 60% of the cost of the dam has already been paid to the Burmese government, totaling more than $2 billion. This is the first time transparent information on the financial aspect of the Myistone Dam has been released to the public. When asked exactly how the money had been spent by the Burmese, Mr. Wang answered that the government had initiated the project for the public interest, and that he believed the government had spent the money to build roads and bridges. In addition, Mr. Wang also stated that should construction be resumed in 2015, CPI would invest a further $1 billion into the project.
In addition to the recent statements by Ambassador Yang and Mr. Wang, there has been more activity around the dam site in recent months. Following the May 30 signing of a ceasefire agreement between the Kachin Independence Army and the Burmese government, there have been reports of trucks driving around the dam site. If true, this would lend credence to the idea that Myitsone really will resume construction.
Many Burma and China watchers are now asking if all of this means a true opportunity to restart the Myitsone Dam. So far, the signs point to “no”. However, this is the most positive talk that has been seen since the dam’s suspension in 2011. From the words of Ambassador Yang and CPI Director Wang, it appears that the Chinese side is more hopeful of an opening, or at the very least more realistic. Previous statements from CPI and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs were more demanding of the Burmese government and indicated that the Chinese fully expected to restart construction before 2015. These most recent remarks, two years after the suspension, indicate that the Chinese are thinking more with a long-term strategy of working with the next government and putting up the necessary investment to get the project restarted. However, despite all of the talk of restarting and positive moves by the Chinese, the dam remains suspended until 2015 and it is unlikely that any agreement will be made before then. The only thing resuming now is the waiting game.