Burma Delivers Its First Rebuff to China-Bertil Lintner-Yale Global

Ever since the brutal Burmese suppression of democracy movement in the late 1980s, China has emerged as the principal backer of the military regime that renamed the country Myanmar. Sanctioned by the West, the military regime depends on China for trade, arms supplies and infrastructure aid. Now a presidential announcement suspending the Myitsone Dam project on the Irrawaddy River, a joint venture with China, could signal the Burmese military’s disenchantment with China or at least a show of desire to distance itself from the powerful neighbor if only to win Western support, explains Burma expert Bertil Lintner. The move could also give the regime a degree of legitimacy because 90 percent of power generated was expected to go to China and Burmese citizens, including Nobel laureate Aung San Su Kie, protested the environmental damage. But playing the “China Card” while repressing citizen demands for democratic reforms may not be enough to satisfy the critical West. – YaleGlobal

Burma Delivers Its First Rebuff to China

Shelving of gigantic Chinese hydroelectric dam could be a signal to the West
Bertil Lintner
YaleGlobal, 3 October 2011
Blocking the dam: Burmese protesters in Thailand oppose China’s Irrawaddy dam project (top); Burmese president U Thein Sein (r) receiving Xu Caihou, Vice Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission

CHIANG MAI: At a time when Asian countries are increasingly worried about China’s growing assertiveness, Burma’s rejection of a huge Chinese hydroelectric dam project has raised new questions: Is this a rare victory for civil society in a repressive country? Or does it indicate an internal dispute over the country’s dependence on China? Regardless of the answers to these questions, the public difference over a close ally’s project marks a new stage in the Burma-China relationship.

On September 30, Burma’s new president, Thein Sein, sent a statement to the country’s parliament announcing that a joint venture with China to build a mega-dam in the far north of the country had been suspended because “it was contrary to the will of the people.” The US$3.6 billion The Myitsone Dam would have been world’s 15th tallest and submerged 766 square kilometers of forestland, an area bigger than Singapore.

It’s unclear if Chinese counterparts were consulted before the decision was made public. Burma has depended on its powerful northern neighbor for trade, political support and arms deliveries since the West shunned the Burmese regime following massacres of pro-democracy demonstrators in 1988.

Public opinion may have played its part. Under the 2006 deal, 90 percent of power generated from Myitsone would have gone to China. Anger over environmental destruction galvanized people against the regime in a way that the country had not seen for years. The dam was a dagger in the heart of the Kachins, the predominant ethnic minority in the area. Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi threw her support behind the anti-dam movement. Many made their voices heard over Facebook – a new tool for anti-regime activists.

Burma depends on China for trade,
political support and arms deliveries – but the president said no
to the Myitsone Dam.

People inside Burma can’t protest openly, but “Save the Irrawaddy” meetings have been held in Rangoon. Burmese exiles have staged anti-Chinese demonstrations outside Burmese and Chinese embassies abroad. Anti-Chinese sentiment is growing in Burma, especially in the north where Chinese influence is the strongest. According to reports from Kachin State, many Chinese nationals working in the state, including traders, have fled to China following the outbreak of hostilities between the Kachin Independence Army and government forces.

But public opinion has never been a strong factor when it comes to influencing the Burmese regime. The regime doesn’t want to risk another outbreak of anti-government protests similar to the 2007 monks’ movement and invite international condemnation with more US and EU sanctions.

Dissatisfaction within the armed forces over China’s growing influence in Burma is a more likely reason for the move to suspend the dam project.

Burma has historically had a strained relationship with its northern neighbor. From the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 until 1962, Beijing maintained a cordial relationship with the non-aligned democratic government of Prime Minister U Nu. Burma was the first country outside the communist bloc to recognize the new regime in Beijing. After General Ne Win staged a coup d’etat in 1962, the Chinese, long wary of the ambitious, sometimes unpredictable general, prepared for all-out support for the insurgent Communist Party of Burma (CPB). Continue reading “Burma Delivers Its First Rebuff to China-Bertil Lintner-Yale Global”