Thursday, February 2, 2012

And quiet flows the Irrawaddy!

In the year 1934, Michail Sholokhov, a Noble prize winning Russian author, published a world famous novel, entitled as “ And Quiet flows the Don”. This novel deals with the life of the Cossacks, living in the Don River valley during the early 20th century. The plot revolves around the Melekhov family of Tatarsk and describes vividly the struggles, sufferings, turmoils and tribulations in the life of this Cossack family over a period of number of years.
I cannot avoid the temptation of comparing the life of the people of Myanmar, living in the valleys of great Irrawaddy river with this novel. They have gone through similar turmoils, sufferings and struggles as they saw their ancestral land being snatched away from them. But the ending is good for the Irrawaddy people as Myanmar Government has finally bowed to the wishes of these people.
The military Government of Myanmar was planning to build a giant dam on the river Irrawaddy since 2003. An official opening ceremony for a giant dam on river Irrawaddy at Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state in northern Myanmar was held on 21 December 2009 and the project was finally launched. This dam was to be built at the head of Irrawaddy river at a distance of 3.2 KM from the confluence of Mali and N’Mai rivers and about 43 KM from Myitkyina. This area is of rich bio diversity and also in an earthquake prone area. Many historical sites closely related to history of Myanmar are located in this area and many academics consider this area as cultural birthplace of Myanmar. Scheduled for completion in 2019 at a cost of US$ 3.6 Billion, the dam would have created a reservoir some 766 sq km (296 square miles) – an area slightly bigger than Singapore. Around 90% of the power generated by the 6,000 megawatt plant at the dam is earmarked to go to China, with state-run China Power Investment Corp. earning about 70% of its profits.

However, opposition to the construction of this dam was particularly strong in Kachin state. The residents felt that the dam construction was a way of resettling and containing ethnic Kachin residents while upsetting the area’s fragile ecological balance. Kachin Independence organization, which has its own army, has been battling the Myanmar armed forces for number of years. It saw this dam as a direct threat to its people and their livelihoods. Thousands of local villagers have already been resettled to make way for the dam; thousands more would have been forced to move as the project developed.
The Government never did carry out any public consultation on the project. As a result, there is a deep opposition across Myanmar to this project. Kachin guerilla groups have clashed repeatedly with Myanmar armed forces since last year and have forced thousands of refugees toward the border with China. Recently the fighting has intensified.
This dam was to be built jointly by the state Myanmar Ministry of Electric Power, the privately-owned Asia World Company of Myanmar Burma and the China Power Investment Corporation. During last few years, thousands of Chinese have moved into Kachin state as traders and workers. This fact is highly resented by the Kachin people. When it became known that bulk of the electricity generated in this project, would be exported to China, the resentment against the project just multiplied. The campaign against construction of the dam has gained much support as Myanmar people consider the Irrawaddy as people’s heritage, lifeline and civilisation. From outside Myanmar, many activists from both environmental and human rights groups, threw their weight behind the campaign. Ms. Suu Kyi also joined the calls in August and asked the Government to scrap such dam projects designed to provide power to China’s energy-hungry economy. Her opposition to the dam project, simple means that the Government’s decision to build this dam, would never hope to get popular support in big cities like Yangon and Mandalay, where resentment is rapidly increasing amongst ordinary citizens over Chinese investments in the country.

This has turned out to be the first litmus test for popularity of the Government headed by Mr. Thein Sein, which claims to be a truly elected democratic Government of Myanmar. Finally, two days back, a spokesman for Myanmar’s government said that Mr. Thein Sein has called for the suspension of the dam project for next 5 years. He has taken this step because he feels that he is elected by the people and therefore has to act according to the desire of the people. The spokesman, Mr.Ye Htut, director general of the Information and Public Relations Department of the Ministry of Information in Myanmar, says that “ This is yet again another proof that Myanmar is changing,”
The author of a new book ; Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia; Mr. Thant Myint-U, says that “There’s a widespread perception that China has taken advantage of Burma’s situation over these past decades, Burma can benefit enormously from Chinese trade and investment, but there is almost bound to be a backlash if Chinese projects are undertaken with zero transparency and little concern for their impact on local communities.” Other environmental activists say that Myanmar must go even further to safeguard against the potential ecological damage of hydropower projects by suspending other projects on the Irrawaddy and elsewhere in Myanmar.
This sudden suspension off the project has taken China by surprise as such democratic pressures are rather unknown to it. It has requested the Government of Myanmar to hold consultations with Chinese companies, which were expected to build the dam. It has asked the Myanmar Government to protect legal and legitimate rights of Chinese companies.
Meanwhile the new Myanmar Government considers it’s decision as concrete evidence of its willingness to listen and to work in the interests of the people and its democratic anchorages. Only Time would test the truth behind these claims.
The Irrawaddy would flow now, once again quietly. At least for the time being.
4 October 2011

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