The section of the Irrawaddy River seen here is in the state of Kachin in Myanmar's… (Khin Maung Win, AP )
Reporting from New Delhi and Bangkok, Thailand — Myanmar's president ordered a halt Friday to work on 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 the northern state of Kachin should be terminated because it is "against the will of the people."
The reversal — if in fact it proves to be one, given Myanmar's often opaque governance — seemed somewhat surprising in a country where leaders have for decades paid limited attention to the public's concerns.
As recently as a few weeks ago, Electric Power Minister Zaw Min vowed to forge ahead with the dam despite growing resistance and widespread criticism.
And if the project is ultimately shut down, given that construction has 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 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.
About 90% of the power generated by the project would go to neighboring China, the government has said, even though most Myanmar residents lack electricity.
Activists and dissidents opposed to 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."
Others said the Myanmar government was making a virtue of necessity.
"The government had little choice," said Col. James Lum Dau, a spokesman for the Kachin Independence Army, an ethnic militia group that has battled the government over the dam. "Since the fighting started, it has been impossible for any construction materials or supplies to get through from China to Myitsone."
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 five times the size of Long Beach.
Burma Rivers Network, a coalition of environmental groups in Thailand and Myanmar that opposed the project, said it expects the dam to go ahead unless China makes its own cancellation announcement and leaves the site.
Analysts said China, with its huge stake in Myanmar's resource-based economy and growing environmental opposition of its own back home, is likely to take the setback in stride until it can regroup.
Although opposition in Myanmar toward China's presence is growing, said Sean Turnell, an economist at Australia's Macquarie University, this decision could ruffle feathers among hard-liners connected to Beijing and the dam.
"A great and somewhat brave decision," he added.
Ever since the Myanmar military handed nominal power to civilians in March — parliament is still dominated by army officers or recent military retirees — there have been some modest signs of reform.
Suu Kyi, who was released last fall from long-term house arrest, has been given some leeway to travel and speak. The government has put out peace feelers to ethnic guerrilla groups, and it has tolerated a modicum of criticism.
This loosening trend is likely to continue for a time, analysts said, as Myanmar tries to persuade the international community to lift economic sanctions. On Thursday, the country's foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, met with Kurt Campbell, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, and U.S. special envoy to Burma Derek Mitchell at the State Department.
But activists said they didn't rule out another crackdown or the rearrest of Suu Kyi if the junta feels it is losing too much control.
"We'll have to see," said Htun Htun. "Right now there seems to be an opportunity, for both the government and Aung San Suu Kyi."
Times staff writer Magnier reported from New Delhi and special correspondent Roughneen from Bangkok, Thailand.