Yangon: Myanmar`s President called on Friday for a halt to construction of a controversial Chinese-backed hydroelectric dam in the country`s north, a move that had been called for by the country`s pro-democracy movement.
President Thein Sein said in a note read out in Parliament that construction of the USD 3.6 billion Myitsone dam project in Kachin state should be suspended. The call is tantamount to suspension, since the government holds a large and well-disciplined majority in Parliament.
The move will be welcomed by environmentalists and social activists who had claimed the project would displace many villagers and upset the ecology of the important food source, the Irrawaddy River, on which it was to be situated.
The political ramifications are equally large, as it marks a rare meeting of the minds between the military-dominated government and the country`s pro-democracy movement. It also marks a rare difference in relations with China, a key ally for diplomatically isolated Myanmar.
In August pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi joined forces with those opposing the dam, bringing a new and potentially powerful issue into the opposition fold.
Although Thein Sein`s government was elected, taking over early this year from a long-standing ruling junta, it has struggled to gain legitimacy because of the perception that it is controlled by the military.
The government remains under political and economic sanctions from the United States and other Western nations.
There has been speculation that it is keen to make gestures showing it is sincere in its efforts at liberalisation, and recently rumours have circulated that it will soon free political prisoners, estimated by human rights groups to number about 2,000.
"We welcome the suspension of the dam project," said Nyan Win, a spokesman for Suu Kyi, adding that the action was in line with her appeal.
Thein Sein`s note, read out in Parliament by lower house Thura Shwe Mann, said construction of the project should be terminated as it is against the will of the people and their representatives.
The decision to halt construction appeared to be a sudden one.
Earlier this month, a report on the weekly Eleven journal said that Electric Power Minister Zaw Min declared that construction of the Myanmar-China Myitsone Hydroelectric Project would proceed despite the objections. The dam, which was being built by a Chinese company and was to supply much of its output to neighbouring China, would have flooded an area the size of Singapore.