YANGON, Myanmar – Myanmar’s president called Friday for work on a controversial Chinese-backed hydroelectric dam to be halted and the concerns of its critics settled, in a startling turnaround welcomed by democracy activists and environmentalists.
President Thein Sein said in a statement that the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam project in the northern state of Kachin should be suspended because “it is against the will of the people.”
Thein Sein said all construction would be stopped for the duration of his term – at least until 2015 – in a striking reversal for the government. Earlier this month, Electric Power Minister Zaw Min had vowed the project would go ahead despite swelling public opposition and widespread criticism.
The construction by Chinese state-owned companies already had been under way, and it was not clear how Myanmar’s decision would affect relations with Beijing, which had no immediate reaction to the announcement.
Thein Sein’s statement said Myanmar would discuss pending contracts regarding the dam with China.
Environmental activists have said the dam would displace countless villagers and upset the ecology of one of the country’s most vital national resources, the Irrawaddy River. It also would submerge a culturally important site in the ethnic Kachin heartland where the Malikha and Maykha rivers meet to form the Irrawaddy.