Rare Public Protest in Burma

In a country where public protest can be dangerous to its practitioners, the Burmese government’s decision to okay the construction of a major dam on the Irrawaddy River is drawing increasingly fierce and surprising opposition.

On Sept. 26, the government’s Ministry of Information reportedly banned journalists from writing about the controversial Myitsone Dam project, or even the Irrawaddy River in general. Last week, artists, writers, poets, singers, environmentalists and social workers defied authorities to hold a series of events around Rangoon, the country‘s commercial center, that attracted thousands of people. Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s democracy icon and Nobel Peace Prize winner, has come out against the dam.

The protests come at a time when ostensibly Burma is gingerly seeking to open up its society, at least for international consumption, nearly a year after elections generally regarded as fixed delivered up a civilian parliament. There have been reported strains in the government itself over the pace – albeit glacial – of liberalization.

The country is seeking to become a full member of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly this year and is requesting to chair ASEAN itself in 2014. However, The ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus last week said that in the country, “widespread and systemic deprivation of economic, social, political and cultural rights continues apace.” The caucus urged fellow ASEAN states “strongly urge Myanmar government to initiate progressive democratic reforms and to meet with human rights standards outlined in both the ASEAN Charter and international law as well as prior to 2014.

“We remain seriously concerned that, in contravention of both the Charter and international law, military-led rule prevents democratic reforms from taking place. In 2010, undemocratic constitution and elections laws would serve to prevent the National League of Democracy (NLD) from rightly participating in democratic elections.”

The caucus also called for the immediate cessation of hostilities in ethnic areas such as Karen, Kachin and Shan states, where “there remain grave concerns that war crimes and crimes against humanity continue to be perpetrated. This includes extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention and internal displacement.”

With that kind of condemnation from within Southeast Asia, it is an extremely sensitive time for the government.

An editor from a local journal told The Irrawaddy, an opposition publication across the border in Chiang Mai, Thailand, that U Myint, a leading Burmese economist and the top economic adviser to Burma President Thein Sein, already admitted that he does not support the Myitsone Project, but the government forbade the journal from publishing his views.

“The (press censorship office) also refused to let us publish news about security concerns after rumors spread regarding the protest at the Chinese Embassy in Rangoon,” the editor told the publication. The PSRD also refused to allow us to publicize campaigns to ‘Save the Irrawaddy.’”

The dam, which is expected to deliver 80 percent of its power to China, was contracted by Burma’s Ministry of Electric Power and is being built by the state-owned China Power Investment Corporation. Accordingly, it has become a lightning rod for public anger at Chinese investment in Burma, which has been characterized by many critics as a virtual colonization of the country. Major pipelines are snaking across the entire country from the Bay of Bengal side of the country, delivering oil and gas to China despite the fact that an estimated 70 percent of Burma is without electricity. Chinese money from the purchase of vast amounts of natural resources is regarded as having propped up the junta that preceded the current government, providing the funds that have modernized the Burmese army and air force.

“China has colonized Burma without shooting a gun and has sucked the life of the people of Burma with the help of the Burmese regime and its cronies,” exiled democracy advocate U Aung Din told reporters recently. “Now, they are killing the Irrawaddy River as well.”

Last week Burmese authorities increased security at the Chinese embassy in Rangoon after rumors spread that public demonstrations would be held against the dam project. Agence-France Press reported last week that a lone protester was arrested for staging a solo protest in front of the government’s cultural office.

In late 2009, a team of 80 Burmese and Chinese scientists and environmentalists conducted a 945-page environmental impact study of the dam and concluded that the dam should never be built. The Burma Rivers Network, which opposes the dam, obtained a copy of the assessment and made it public. However, the Ministry of Electric Power-1 said it had done its own environmental assessment and the dam would be built regardless.

The dam has been under preparation since 2005, causing the forced relocation of thousands of ethnic Katchin citizens and sparking local protest. Located 1.5 kilometers below where the Mali and N’Mai Rivers join to form the Irrawaddy in Kachin state, it is expected to produce 3,600 to 6,000 megawatts of power. Expected to be completed in 2018, it is the largest of seven dams the Chinese have proposed on the Irrawaddy and is expected to inundate more than 750 sq km, according to the International Rivers NGO, which seeks to protect rivers and defend the rights of those who live on their banks.