Burma activists' joy as plug pulled on $2bn dam

Chinese project would have flooded an area the size of Singapore

Burma's government has called a halt to work on a multibillion-dollar dam project on the Irrawaddy river that activists claimed would displace thousands of people and threaten the ecology of one of the world's major water systems.

In a statement read out on his behalf before the country's fledgling parliament, President Thein Sein said work on the Chinese-backed Myitsone hydro-power dam project in the northern state of Kachin was to be suspended because it was "against the will of the people". He said no work would proceed as long as he remained in his post.

"We have to honour the wishes of the people and we have to consider and settle the concerns of the people," the statement said.

The decision threw activists and campaigners off balance. For months they had been waging a battle against the dam, saying it could have untold environmental and human costs. The opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was freed last year after seven years of house arrest, was among those who voiced concern, suggesting that at least 20,000 people would be affected.

Last night, campaigners said they were encouraged by the government's announcement, but pointed out that the 6,000-megawatt Myitsone dam, which would have flooded an area the size of Singapore, is one of seven dams being planned in Burma on tributaries of the Irrawaddy, all of which could have a considerable impact.

"If the Myitsone project is indeed cancelled, this would be a great victory for the people of Burma, especially the brave villagers at the Myitsone site who stood up to the Burma army and refused to make way for the project," said the Burma Rivers Network, which is based in Thailand. However, the organisation pointed out that the site was still controlled by China Power Investment, a Beijing-based company building the dam.

"There needs to be an official statement by [the company] announcing this, and the Myitsone construction camps must be closed. Most importantly, the people who were forced to move must be allowed to return to their homes," the Burma Rivers Network added. The dam was to have been 152m (500ft) long and 152m high, and was expected to cost £2.3bn. It would have been an important source of income for Burma, which would have sold around 90 per cent of the electricity produced to China.

Last month, Ms Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy, wrote an open later opposing the project. She said: "Ecological changes to the Irrawaddy would impact all those whose lives are connected to the great river, from the ethnic peoples in the northernmost state of our country to the rice-growing communities of the delta. To conserve the Irrawaddy is to protect our economy and our environment as well as to safeguard our national heritage."

Pitaporn Deetes, a spokeswoman for International Rivers, said last night that it was too early to describe the decision by the Burmese authorities as a victory. "I think it is important to see what steps the Burmese authorities are taking," she said. "Postponing one dam might not mean anything."

Activists said that as well as displacing people, the project would threaten the ecology of one of the country's most vital resources. It would also submerge a culturally important site in the ethnic Kachin heartland, where the Malikha and Maykha rivers meet to form the Irrawaddy.

The announcement by the government caught most observers by surprise. Thein Sein was made President in March after the military junta announced that it was disbanding and putting in place a civilian regime. Many Western commentators say that the government remains dominated by retired military officers and is at best a proxy for the old regime. About 2,000 political prisoners remain behind bars.

However, the authorities have taken steps to improve their image. For example, an interview with Ms Suu Kyi appeared in a Burmese publication for the first time this summer.

And yesterday, the 64-year-old held her third meeting with a government minister, Aung Kyi. Those who are looking for change say this is a sign of a continuing dialogue. Welcoming the decision to stop the dam, Ms Suu Kyi told the Associated Press news agency: "All governments should listen to the voices of the people."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
From Mean Girls to Mamet: Lindsay Lohan
theatre
Sport
Nathaniel Clyne (No 2) drives home his side's second goal past Arsenal’s David Ospina at the Emirates
footballArsenal 1 Southampton 2: Arsène Wenger pays the price for picking reserve side in Capital One Cup
News
Mike Tyson has led an appalling and sad life, but are we not a country that gives second chances?
peopleFormer boxer 'watched over' crash victim until ambulance arrived
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
tv
News
i100
Travel
travelGallery And yes, it is indoors
Arts and Entertainment
The Tiger Who Came To Tea
booksJudith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed'
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Sport
John Terry, Frank Lampard
footballChelsea captain sends signed shirt to fan whose mum had died
News
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Account Executive/Sales Consultant – Permanent – Hertfordshire - £16-£20k

£16500 - £20000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

KS2 PPA Teacher needed (Mat Cover)- Worthing!

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: KS2 PPA Teacher currently nee...

IT Systems Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Day In a Page

Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

BBC Television Centre

A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

My George!

Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world