RANGOON — Burma’s President Thein Sein in 2011 suspended the Myitsone hydropower dam in northern Kachin State amid widespread opposition to the project among Burmese people concerned its social and environmental impacts. The project, which would send most its power to China, remains highly controversial, but Chinese investors want it to resume as soon as possible.
The Ministry of Electric Power granted permission to local firm Asia World and China’s state-owned China Power Investment Corporation (CPI) to construct the dam. Beijing has said it will respect the will of Burmese public and the decision of their government, but hopes the Myitsone dam will resume after Burma’s 2015 election.
In a recent interview with The Irrawaddy’s senior reporter May Sit Paing, Jiang Lizhe, CPI’s director of public affairs, talked about why China wants to resume the dam project and responded to criticisms about his company’s involvement in this project.
Question: Do you think the Myitsone dam project can resume under the administration of a new government in Burma?
Answer: It will be up to the government’s decision. We have always respected the choice of the current one, which decided to suspend the project on Sept. 30, 2011. We implemented the dam construction exactly following the government’s rules and regulations, and in accordance with procedures and laws. We also signed an agreement contract. Parties that have signed such a contract, which follows international standards and laws, have a responsibility to fulfill it. Therefore, we are hoping that issues related to the Myitsone dam project will be settled by the appropriate means.
Q: Why do you think local people living around the Myitsone area and many political and social activists have called for an end to this project?
A: There was no activity against the project until just before its suspension. We had a very good relationship with local people. We distributed water and electricity to them free of charge to make their lives easier. We also donated to them 1,188 tons of rice. Besides, to help improve the education and health situation in the area, we gave out more than 50 scholarships and donations to hospitals. Many locals have told us that the suspension of the project has caused real hardships for them and that they want it to be continued.
Q: How do you respond to the accusation that the dam project would destroy the Irrawaddy River?
A: We systematically studied the impact of Myitsone dam hydropower project on areas located in the lower part of the Irrawaddy River. Our study included changes of current, use of water resources, control of flumes, settlement of sediment, flooding, the level of sea water coming into the river, and social and economic development. After the completion of the project there will be only a small change in the flow of current in rainy season and in summer, and the amount of water flowing annually will not decrease. Also, sea water will not come into areas located in the lower part of the river because of the project construction on the upper part. Instead, those areas will receive positive impacts such as better flood control and improvement of transportation using waterways.
Q: Some activists have criticized CPI’s Environmental Impact Assessment for the Myitsone dam project, saying that it contains insufficient environmental data and other weaknesses. Do you have any comment on that?
A: In 2008-2009, some 100 Chinese and Burmese environmental experts conducted a field survey and thorough studies. The outcomes of their studies and surveys are already on our website. We should respect their brilliant participation and efforts on environmental protection and conservation. We welcome any environmental expert who is willing to cooperate with us effectively and we pay serious attention to scientific studies. However, when we looked at the criticism against us, we found that the people who criticized us did not know about the real situation.
Q: Critics have said that Chinese investors have only recently engaged in philanthropic and social activities, and been in touch with political parties and organizations in order to improve their relations with Burmese people. Is this correct?
A: Let’s say if you have a good friend who is very kind and contributes to others’ benefit very much but never tells anyone about him- or herself. One day, a bad person puts blame on your friend in the international arena and makes them believe that he/she is not a good person. Do you think such action is fair for your friend?
Over the previous decades, Chinese people provided the Burmese with a lot of help. We also supported them when their country was under economic sanctions. We, however, never said a word about what we did. That’s why most of those who have criticized us do not know what has really happened and still believe we are bad. We should have informed the world long ago what we had done for Burma’s social and economic development.
Q: Why does CPI want to continue the hydropower project in spite of the challenges and public opposition?
A: Local people are, in fact, not against this project. They just misunderstand it because they don’t know the reality, and because of rumors and wrong information. If they [both the Burmese government and the general public] know about the true color of the project, we believe they will make the right choice.
The Myitsone hydropower project is a Burmese project. It is important for Burma’s development and will also build up people’s living conditions. President Thein Sein violated the official contract and suspended the project. We hope his government will be able to give us answers with regard to the suspension.
The Myitsone project came into existence because the Burmese government invited CPI to help solve project-related difficulties and requirements such as funding, technology, the consumer market [for its power], etc.
Only 25 percent of people in Burma now have access to electricity. Such a huge hydropower project is needed to solve the electricity shortage in the country. This project will be beneficial to the Burmese government, local businesses and people. Thus, every concerned individual and party should work together to make it successful.
Q: I understand that the CPI has greatly invested in this project. How much has it invested so far?
A: We have estimated that a total of about US$25 billion will be invested for [multiple] hydropower projects in the upper part of the Irrawaddy River. We had already invested $1.2 billion before the Myitsone project was suspended.
Q: How much money have you given to the Burmese Government?
A: According to our agreement, the investor has to provide technology and funding, and help look for an electricity consumer market for Burma. On the Burmese government side, it has to invest natural resources as its share in the project. For that, it will gain 10 percent of the electricity free of charge as well as a 15 percent share and a lot of revenues. The benefit Burma gets from the project construction and operation will be much more than CPI does.
Q: Do you think the suspension of the Myitsone project had an impact on foreign investment in Burma?
A: Yes. It had an impact on credibility. A lot of foreign investors, who were watching this project for a long time, were surprised when it was suspended. Then, they had to recalculate the amount of risk they would have to consider if they planned to invest in Burma. It was unexpected, but everybody knows that the amount of investment in Burma dropped significantly after it had suspended the Myitsone project.