Myanmar Takes U-Turn on Controversial Dam Project

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: A very different kind of energy project is in the news today. In Burma, the government of the country also known as Myanmar announced it was halting construction of a major hydroelectric dam. The Chinese-backed dam would harness the flow of Burma' s major waterway, the Irrawaddy River. Opponents of the project, including pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, said it would displace thousands of people and damage the environment. Tin Htar Swe is with the BBC' s Burmese Service, and the Burmese government isn't exactly known for backing down from decisions Tin Htar Swe, yet this time it has, with the country's President saying, "We have to respect the will of the people as our government is elected by the people." What is going on here?

Tin Htar Swe: The government is a new government. The elections were held 6 months ago and this is the first time that the government is responding to the concerns shared by the public including Aung San Suu Kyi.

Werman: So a big change of heart. And it has to be clarified that this is a new, as you said, new civilian government in Burma. How vocal and how widespread was the opposition to the dam?

Swe: It was unprecedented. It was started off by the Kachin people who are directly affected by the project and then gradually it spread to other people, the people in exile, even people who are not interested in politics. There are academics; there are scholars; there are social activists and also environmentalists.

Werman: How far along was the construction project on this dam?

Swe: The project started a few years ago, so they are stopping in the middle of the construction. One of the reasons that the construction has been halted is that it is the area belonging to Kachin people. The Kachin rebel army is controlling the supply lines, supply routes to the dam. So construction material cannot be delivered to the construction site. So there is an issue there now.

Werman: So that sounds like a very important factor, perhaps, in the President's decision to stop construction on the dam project?

Swe: The government has to try and balance — not to upset the Chinese and also not to stage another military operation on the Kachin rebels. If they stage another military operation, then a number of Kachin villagers will flee in to China. This is something the Chinese government are very particular about — stability along the border.

Werman: What will the Chinese do now? They have invested, as you say, a lot in this dam project. Do they just pack up their gear and go home?

Swe: This is one of the many projects. There are 6 dams' projects that the Burmese government is in agreement with the Chinese. So this is only one of the projects [laughs].

Werman: Right.

Swe: But the other projects are much smaller projects, of course.

Werman: I would imagine that a lot of the opposition to the dam had to do with the fact that it's on the Irrawaddy River. I mean, that river seems to have almost mythic meaning for the people of Burma. Tell us why that is.

Swe: Irrawaddy is like Mississippi to Americans. It is very important for Burmese people. This is a massive river. It is beautiful. And also, a lot of livelihood is along the river. A lot of poems are written about Irrawaddy River. A lot of fictions and movies are about Irrawaddy. So, Irrawaddy is a part of every Burmese people's life.

Werman: Tin Htar Swe with the BBC' s Burmese Service, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Swe: Thank you.