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Villagers who were among nearly 1,000 families in Kachin state forced to relocate to make way for the Myitsone dam have begun returning home, more than five months after Burmese President Thein Sein announced a suspension of the project.
A number of Taunghtwat residents arrived back last week and on Friday held a ceremony to mark their return. They had spent the past 14 months at a site seven miles from their homes and feared the relocation would be permanent.
“We have called [locals] to come back and are now rebuilding the village” said a Taunghtwat man. “This is where we used to live, our native land – we have our work here.”
When plans for the Chinese-backed 6,000 MW dam were being drawn up, the estimation of the total number of people displaced hovered around 15,000. A reservoir formed by the dam would have submerged an area the size of Singapore, one of a number of factors that led to widespread demonstrations.
But in October last year Thein Sein announced the project would not go ahead while he was in power. The government cited mass opposition to the dam as the key reason for its suspension, although analysts have argued instead that it stems from fears among the top levels of the government over Burma’s dependence on Chinese political and economic support.
The decision triggered a tension in normally strong relations between Burma and China, and the lead company in the project, China Power Investment (CPI) Corporation, has threatened legal action.
But some reports claim operations have not completely stopped at the site, with work on a key road linking the dam site to the Chinese border still underway. Moreover, Chinese workers had remained at the construction site well into February this year.
CPI employees inside Burma reportedly began distributing leaflets talking up the benefits of the dam in what the Thailand-based Irrawaddy news group says is a PR effort aimed at rekindling the project.
Campaigns developed to oppose the project, notably the Save the Irrawaddy campaign, show however an increasing resistance among Burmese to major energy projects in the country, which to date have gone ahead with little attention paid to environmental or social impacts.
The vast majority of the electricity generated by Myitsone was due to go to China, despite Burma’s reputation for having regular blackouts stemming from major power shortages.