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MYANMAR: President orders halt to dam backed by China

September 30, 2011 |  7:51 am

Irrawaddy River
REPORTING FROM NEW DELHI --  Myanmar’s president ordered a halt Friday to a controversial $3.6-billion hydroelectric dam backed by China, a rare concession to the political opposition and public displeasure.

President Thein Sein said in a statement read out on his behalf in parliament that the Myitsone dam project in northern Kachin state should be terminated since it is "against the will of the people."

As recently as a few weeks ago, Electric Power Minister Zaw Min vowed to forge ahead with the project despite growing resistance and widespread criticism.

With construction already started, it’s not immediately clear how a halt might be carried out in politically isolated Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Critics led by pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi have argued in recent months that the dam would hurt the ecological balance of the vital Irrawaddy River, displace at least 10,000 people from 63 villages and submerge culturally important sites.

Rebels and local residents also have voiced their opposition. Fighting in the area has intensified recently, and in April bomb blasts at the dam site destroyed cars and buildings, leaving one man wounded.

Activists and political dissidents of Myanmar’s military junta welcomed Friday’s news as a rare case of the government relenting after public protest.

“But I’m not sure they’ll really stop the project,” said Htun Htun, program coordinator with India’s Burma Center Delhi, an activist group. “The military junta has taken a lot of money from the Chinese, some say $700 million in bribes, so it could be difficult to halt it. Later on, it may continue.”

The dam, outlined in a 2009 deal between China Power Investment Corp. and Myanmar's military-backed Asia World Co., would flood an area roughly the size of Singapore. Some 90% of the power generated by the project would go to China, the government has said, even though most Myanmar residents lack electricity.

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-- Mark Magnier and Simon Roughneen

Photo: In this photo taken on Dec. 7, 2009, the Irrawaddy River runs through Kachin state, northern Myanmar. Credit: Khin Maung Win / Associated Press

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