The Myitsone dam project was suspended by President Thein Sein in 2011, following public outcry over the potential social and environmental consequences, but it remains controversial today amid a push by its Chinese investors to restart construction.
In a joint venture, Burma’s Ministry of Electric Power decided to construct the hydroelectric dam in Kachin State along with major Burmese conglomerate Asia World and the state-run China Power Investment Corp. (CPI), which has borne the brunt of public criticism for the project. China has said it respects the will of the Burmese people and government but hopes construction will resume after a new government comes to power in 2015. In this interview, Jiang Lizhe, director of public affairs for CPI frankly explains why, while also responding to his company’s critics.
Question: Do you think you can restart the Myitsone dam project when a new government comes to power?
Answer: That’s the government’s decision, and we have always respected the government’s decisions, even when they chose to suspend the project on Sept. 30, 2011. We implemented this project strictly in accordance with laws and regulations, and the contract was signed. In keeping with international practice and relevant laws, the parties who signed the contract have an obligation to fulfill it. We hope the Myitsone HPP [hydropower project] issue can be solved properly.
Q: Local people near Myitsone and activists have strongly called for an end to the project. Why?
A: Before the suspension of the Myitsone HPP, there were no opposition activities, and we had a very good relationship with the local people. … During the past two years, we have provided free electricity and water to the PAPs, donated 1,188 tons of rice, and improved education and medical conditions by giving more than 50 scholarships and donations to hospitals. …A lot of residents have told us that the actual difficulties they face are due to the suspension of the project, and they wish the project would continue.
Q: How would you respond to criticism that the dam project will destroy the river?
A: Studies on the impact of hydropower development in the upstream Ayeyawady [Irrawaddy River] confluence basin on the lower reaches have been thoroughly conducted regarding flow change, utilization of water resources, irrigation of the lower reaches, navigation, sediment, flood control, seawater intrusion, socio-economic development and so on. … Completion of the HPPs will cause only a small change in the flow during dry and rainy seasons, without reducing the total average annual flow. Thus the development has no negative impact on the irrigation of the lower reaches. The hydropower development in the upstream Ayeyawady confluence will not cause seawater intrusion, and will impact positively on strengthening flood control capability and improving the navigation condition in lower reaches.
Q: Some activists have criticized CPI’s Environmental Impact Assessment report, saying the environmental data are incomplete or have weaknesses. Can you comment?
A: During 2008 and 2009, 100 environmental experts from Myanmar and China jointly conducted field investigations and deep studies. The results of these studies and surveys have already been published on our website … and their excellent contribution and efforts for environmental protection should be respected. We welcome all environmental experts to objectively and comprehensively communicate with us in a scientific and serious attitude, but the critics do not have a comprehensive understanding of reality.
Q: In recent years, some critics have also accused Chinese investors of getting involved in philanthropy, social affairs, political parties and organizations to improve relations with the Burmese public. Is this true?
A: What if you had a good friend who was very kind and did a lot of good things for other people, but never told anyone? One day, a bad guy blames him intentionally and makes others believe he is bad. Is this fair for the friend? The Chinese people in past decades have given abundantly to help the Myanmar people, and we provided support to the Myanmar people during the sanction period, but we did not say one word, so most people do not know the truth, they believe the bad guy. Now we are only saying what we have done and what we have contributed to Myanmar’s social and economic development. We should let the world know, and we should do it early.
Q: Why does CPI want to continue the hydropower project, despite challenges and objections?
A: Actually the local people do not oppose the project. Due to a lack of understanding about the truth, some rumors and false news have led to misunderstandings about the project. We believe that by understanding the real project, the government and people will make the right choice.
The Myitsone hydropower project is a Myanmar project—it is important for Myanmar development and the improvement of people’s livelihoods. It was suspended by President U Thein Sein, who broke a legal contract. We expect that the government can give us an adequate solution to this issue. The initiative of the Myitsone hydropower project came at the invitation of the Myanmar government to CPI, in order to solve difficulties in hydropower development associated with finance, technology and the consumption market. Only 25 percent of Myanmar people can use electricity. … Myanmar needs this large hydropower project to solve the electricity shortage. For the Myanmar government, local enterprises and the people, this is a win-win project, and all parties should work together to promote it.
Q: CPI has reportedly invested a vast amount of funds for this project. How much?
A: The estimated investment for the Upstream Ayeyawady hydropower projects is US$25 billion. We had already invested $1.2 billion before the Myitsone HPP was suspended.
Q: How much have you paid the Burma government?
A: According to our agreement, the investor needs to provide finance and technology while also helping Myanmar find a power consumption market. The Myanmar government provides resources as shares. It will benefit by receiving 10 percent of the electricity for free, 15 percent of shares in the joint-venture company, and a large amount of tax revenue. The total amount of revenue for Myanmar during the construction and operation period will be much more than the amount for CPI.
Q: Will the suspension of the Myitsone project have any effect on foreign investment to Burma?
A: Confidence has been affected. A lot of foreign investors who were focused on this project for a long time were surprised by the suspension of the Myitsone HPP … This will make other investors re-evaluate the risk of investment. As everyone knows, foreign investment has sharply decreased since the suspension, although this was not expected to occur.