China’s dam prob­lem with Myan­mar

The Myanmar Times - - News - BRAHMA CHELLANEY news­room@mm­

CHINA is a big fan of dams. In­deed, over the past 50 years, the coun­try has con­structed more dams than all other coun­tries com­bined. But there is one dam that China never man­aged to get built: the My­it­sone dam in Myan­mar. And Chi­nese lead­ers can’t seem to let it go.

The My­it­sone dam was to stand at the head­wa­ters of the Aye­yarwady River, Myan­mar’s life­line. It was de­signed as a hy­dro­elec­tric power project, which would gen­er­ate en­ergy for ex­port to China, at a time when Myan­mar’s econ­omy de­pended on its gi­ant neigh­bour. Ruled by a bru­tal mil­i­tary junta, Myan­mar faced crip­pling United States-led sanc­tions and broad in­ter­na­tional iso­la­tion.

Where oth­ers saw hu­man-rights vi­o­la­tions, China saw an op­por­tu­nity to ad­vance its own strate­gic and resource in­ter­ests. When the My­it­sone dam project was in­tro­duced, China was also es­tab­lish­ing a foothold in Myan­mar’s Kyaukpyu port on the Bay of Ben­gal, from which it would build en­ergy pipe­lines to south­ern China.

A stronger pres­ence in Myan­mar’s Aye­yarwady, which flows from near the Chi­nese bor­der to the An­daman Sea, promised to pro­vide China with a shorter, cheaper trade route to Europe. As an added ben­e­fit, the My­it­sone project – and, more broadly, China’s re­la­tion­ship with Myan­mar – would ad­vance China’s am­bi­tion of chal­leng­ing In­dia’s ad­van­tage around the In­dian Ocean.

Ev­ery­thing seemed to be go­ing ac­cord­ing to plan. But in 2011, just two years af­ter the US$3.6 bil­lion project got un­der­way, Myan­mar’s gov­ern­ment sud­denly sus­pended the dam’s con­struc­tion – a slap in the face to China. Mov­ing to­ward demo­cratic re­form, Pres­i­dent U Thein Sein’s gov­ern­ment was ea­ger to cast off the view of Myan­mar as a Chi­nese client state.

U Thein Sein got what he wanted. Myan­mar’s re­ver­sal on the My­it­sone dam be­came a wa­ter­shed mo­ment for the coun­try’s demo­cratic tran­si­tion. It helped to bring an end to Myan­mar’s in­ter­na­tional iso­la­tion, and an eas­ing of the long-stand­ing Western sanc­tions that made Myan­mar so de­pen­dent on China in the first place. In 2012, Barack Obama be­came the first US pres­i­dent ever to visit Myan­mar.

Last year, Myan­mar elected its first civil­ian-led gov­ern­ment since the 1950s. The Na­tional League for Democ­racy, led by the for­mer po­lit­i­cal prisoner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, won the election in a land­slide. Though Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was blocked from run­ning for the pres­i­dency di­rectly, she is the most pow­er­ful fig­ure in Myan­mar’s ten-month-old gov­ern­ment.

Along­side all of this demo­cratic progress, how­ever, Myan­mar’s re­la­tions with China cooled con­sid­er­ably. Af­ter work on the My­it­sone dam halted, sev­eral other dam and en­ergy projects were also put on hold, though Chi­nese firms did man­age to com­plete multi­bil­lion-dol­lar oil and gas pipe­lines from Myan­mar’s western coast to south­ern China in 2013-2014.

But China has not given up on the My­it­sone project. In­deed, Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping seems to be try­ing to seize the open­ing cre­ated by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s ef­forts to defuse bi­lat­eral ten­sions – her first diplo­matic trip since the election was to Bei­jing – to pres­sure her to re­verse U Thein Sein’s de­ci­sion.

China has warned that if Myan­mar fails to re­sume the My­it­sone project, it will be li­able to pay $800 mil­lion to China. Hong Liang, China’s am­bas­sador to Myan­mar, de­clared three months ago that Myan­mar should be pay­ing $50 mil­lion in in­ter­est alone for each year the project is sus­pended. But if the project were com­pleted, Hong con­tin­ued, Myan­mar could reap high re­turns by ex­port­ing much of the elec­tric­ity to China.

The threats have not fallen on deaf ears. Be­fore her visit to Bei­jing, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi tasked a 20-mem­ber com­mis­sion to re­view pro­posed and ex­ist­ing hy­dropower projects along the Aye­yarwady, in­clud­ing the sus­pended My­it­sone deal.

But Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who dis­par­aged the dam project when she led the op­po­si­tion to the junta, re­mains un­likely to restart the My­it­sone project. As much as she wants China off her back – an ob­jec­tive that surely drove the de­ci­sion to launch the com­mis­sion – ac­tu­ally agree­ing to re­sume work on the deeply un­pop­u­lar My­it­sone dam would be too po­lit­i­cally com­pro­mis­ing to con­sider.

In fact, within Myan­mar, the My­it­sone project is widely re­garded as a yet an­other neo-colo­nial pol­icy, de­signed to ex­pand China’s in­flu­ence over smaller coun­tries while feed­ing its own resource greed, re­gard­less of lo­cal con­di­tions or needs. And there is plenty of ev­i­dence to sup­port this read­ing – be­gin­ning with China’s de­mand for most of the elec­tric­ity, even as much of Myan­mar suf­fers from long, daily power out­ages.

More­over, the con­struc­tion that did take place had se­ri­ous con­se­quences for the peo­ple of Myan­mar. By flood­ing a large swath of land, the project dis­placed many sub­sis­tence farm­ers and fish­er­men, fu­elling a pop­u­lar back­lash that con­trib­uted to the end of a 17-year cease­fire be­tween the Kachin In­de­pen­dence Army and gov­ern­ment forces.

Chi­nese pres­sure to re­vive the My­it­sone is re­viv­ing anti-Chi­nese sen­ti­ment in Myan­mar. While Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was in Bei­jing, anti-Chi­nese protests flared anew back home. At a time when Myan­mar is be­ing wooed by all ma­jor pow­ers and ea­ger in­ter­na­tional in­vestors, there is no in­cen­tive for the gov­ern­ment – much less the pub­lic – to ig­nore the en­vi­ron­men­tal and hu­man costs of China’s projects.

It is time for China to recog­nise that the de­ci­sion to end the My­it­sone project will not be re­versed. It can hope that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s com­mis­sion makes some face-saving rec­om­men­da­tions, such as pay­ing com­pen­sa­tion to China or mak­ing new deals for smaller, more en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly power plants. But with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi com­mit­ted to a neu­tral for­eign pol­icy, China’s days of suck­ing re­sources from Myan­mar, with­out any re­gard for the en­vi­ron­men­tal or hu­man costs, are over. – Project Syn­di­cate

Brahma Chellaney is a pro­fes­sor of strate­gic stud­ies at the New Delhi-based Cen­ter for Pol­icy Re­search and a fel­low at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.

Photo: EPA

State Coun­sel­lor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping wait for del­e­gates to en­ter for a meet­ing in Bei­jing on Au­gust 19.

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