By: Our Correspondent

In an unprecedented about-turn, Burmese President Thein Sein has yielded to widespread citizen protest and said the government will put a stop to construction of the controversial Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy River.

Thein Sein announced that he would ask Parliament to suspend construction of the US$3.6 billion hydroelectric dam, which is already under construction by the Chinese state-owned China Power Investment Corp, because it was against the will of the people and their representatives, according to a note read out in the parliament.

The decision to stop construction is the latest in a series of cautious liberal steps the country has taken since rigged national elections last November to create a body with the appearance of democracy which, as Asia Sentinel reported on Sept. 23, should be regarded with considerable caution and which may bear little resemblance to the real thing. These steps have included the freeing of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi from years of house arrest, some liberalization of the press and freer access to the Internet.

The question is what happens now along the river, one of the most important in Asia, which flows down from the Himalayas and provides food and sustenance to tens of millions of people before it ends in the Bay of Bengal. The Myistone Dam was to be the first of seven on the Irrawaddy that were scheduled to be built at a cost of US$20 billion by Chinese construction companies to supply power to energy-starved China – nearly Burma’s only staunch ally — over the border. There is no word on the fate of the other seven.

In an effort to improve its energy mix with non hydrocarbon-emitting power plants, China is engaging in an orgy of dam-building, funding and building dams not only on the Irrawaddy but on the Mekong River and many other rivers. Southeast Asian dams include the Kamchay Dam in Cambodia and the Tasang Dam, also in Burma.

Other major development projects have already been completed on the Mekong, including one at Manwan in 1993 and another at Dachaoshan in 2003. At least four more are in planning. The Chinese government is building or planning to build as many as 12 large dams on the Jinsha River, whose headwaters are on the highlands of the Tibetan Plateau and which passes through Yunan and Sichuan Provinces before becoming the Yangtze. More than 300,000 people will be displaced, numerous cultural sites will be inundated and river ecosystems irretrievably altered, according to environmentalist critics.

In late 2009, a team of 80 Burmese and Chinese scientists and environmentalists conducted a 945-page environmental impact study of the Myitsone Dam for China Power Investment itself 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 Myitsone dam has been opposed by a wide range of environmentalists, social activists, artists and others including Aung San Suu Kyi, who requested a review of the facility earlier this year. Thousands of people have been displaced from its catchment area, which is said to be as big as the island of Singapore.

Despite the fact that Burmese authorities have recently been showing increased flexibility over protests, the climb-down represents an unprecedented change in attitude, possibly because of opposition within the government itself besides the general population. As late as two weeks ago, the country‘s Minister of Electric Power-1, Zaw Min, told reporters at a press briefing in the capital of Naypyidaw that the dam would be finished in eight years. “I will say that we will never stop the project before finishing,” Zaw Min told reporters. Just last week, the Burmese authorities tightened security around the Chinese embassy in Rangoon to forestall any potential protests against the dam. A single protester was arrested for appearing in front of the embassy.

International considerations appear to be playing a role in the steps toward liberalization. The government is seeking to make friends of longstanding foes, including the United States. The Burmese foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, visited the US State Department headquarters in Washington, DC Thursday for talks with Obama administration officials. The Burmese delegation has also met with US officials at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

On a regional front, the country expects 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 has continued to assail the government in Naypyidaw, saying that
“widespread and systemic deprivation of economic, social, political and cultural rights continues apace.”

On Wednesday, the caucus released a blistering statement strongly condemning “the widespread brutality, systemic use of torture, solitary confinement, enforced disappearance and cruel and degrading treatment undertake by this illegitimate regime” in the 2007 crackdown on a widespread protest by Buddhist monks.

The caucus charged that Burma is holding 1,998 political prisoners; “a third of whom remain imprisoned for participating in the Saffron Revolution, many monks and nuns among them. Rounded up and sent to prison camps and make-shift detention compounds in remote northern regions, many hundreds of Myanmar’s well-esteemed monks – ‘saffron’, the color of their robes – were forcibly disappeared, others killed.”