|Environmentalists and social activists claim that the hydroelectric dam would displace many villagers [Reuters]
The Myanmar government has suspended the construction of a $3.6bn China-backed hydroelectric dam in the country's north, a move that had been called for by the country's pro-democracy movement.
Thein Sein, Myanmar's president, told parliamentarians on Friday that the construction of the Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy river in northern Kachin state would be halted during the term of the current government.
The decision marks a rare meeting of the minds between the 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.
"The president decided to stop the dam project because the government is elected by the people and the government has to respect the will of the people," an official, who did not want to be named, said.
Opposition to the dam has been building as social rights and environmental activists test the limits of their freedom under the new nominally civilian regime, which is dominated by former military officers.
They had argued that the project would displace many villagers and upset the ecology of the Irrawaddy river, on which it was to be situated.
In August, Aung San Suu Kyi, a pro-democracy figure and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, joined forces with those opposing the dam, bringing a new issue into the opposition fold.
"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.
The decision to halt construction appeared to be a sudden one.
Earlier this month, a report published in the weekly Eleven journal said that Zaw Min, the electric power minister, declared that construction of the hydroelectric project would proceed despite the objections.
The dam, which was to supply much of its output to neighbouring China, would have flooded an area about the size of Singapore, creating a 766-square-kilometre reservoir with a depth of 290 meters.
At about 152-metres long and 152-metres high, it was several years from completion.
Although Thein Sein's government was elected, taking over early this year from a long-standing ruling military government, 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 US 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.