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”

Save River Irrawaddy: Sign your name in support of saving River Irrawaddy.

The China Gezhouba Group is building a dam on the confluence of the Mali and N’Mai rivers in Kachin State, one of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots. Once complete it will flood the rainforest with a reservoir the size of New York city and displace 10,000 people, mostly Kachin ethnics, as well as submerging cultural heritage sites central to Kachin identity, according to International Rivers. The Burma Rivers Network, an NGO which represents communities along thre river, said China’s massive huydropower investments had widened the gulf between the government — which wants to benefit from cross-border electricity sales — and Kachin independence groups, which fear the dams will bring environmental, cultural and social disruption. The environmental group has released what it says is a leaked environmental assessment jointly commissioned by the Burmese and Chinese authorities that recommends scrapping the project because it would cause immense damage to bio- diverse ecosystems as local livelihoods as well as posing great risks in the event of an earthquake.  more on


Mekong fighters need to come up with Plan B

Yesterday, I was among some 100 people who went to watch the 30-minute long documentary film, Where have all the fish gone? Killing the Mekong dam by dam, directed by Tom Fawthrop, at the Chiangmai University.

If you were looking for inspiration and stimulation, it wouldn’t disappoint you

It once again hit home what the activists have been saying all along that the Mekong has reached a critical juncture:

  • There are 19 dams being planned (8 by China and the rest by downstream countries)
  • 4 dams have already been completed by China
  • The last one Xiaowan was opened last August
  • With each dam built, the water level has been going lower, reaching the lowest last March
  • China, together with Burma, are only observers at the Mekong River Commission (MRC) and not members like the other 4: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam
  • China has steadfastly denied its dams have anything to do with the drying up downstream
  • The film also ventures a question: Is the MRC doing enough to prevent further disasters?
Salween River (photo: http://www.flickr.com

I’m not an expert on rivers, or on anything. But after watching it, I’ve been asking myself whether we’ve been placing too much emphasis on the rivers like the Mekong and the Salween, which are international, more than the national ones like Chao Phraya and Irrawaddy?

The Shans, to whom the Salween wields a sort of  psychical power on them (“As long as the Salween flows, the Shans live” notion), are more vulnerable. Had they placed their psychology on rivers inside their state borders like the Teng and Pang, I think they would have been less helpless.

Saying this, I also think the ruling junta’s decision to allow the Chinese to build the Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy in Kachin State was a short-sighted and ill advised one. What can be more foolhardy than placing the long trumpeted “perpetuation of the national sovereignty” in the hands of another country? The “Union of Myanmar” (UM) or rather the “Republic of the Union of Myanmar” (RUM) may last longer without the Salween or the Mekong but not without the Irrawaddy.

That is not to say we need to give up the struggle against the regional governments and transnational conglomerates for the survival of the Mekong as well as the Salween. But we need not forget that the survival of Burma and Thailand rests more with the survival of the Irrawaddy and the Chao Phraya and both countries need to come up with a sound Plan B.  Continue reading “Mekong fighters need to come up with Plan B”

Burma Election Boycott Song by All Kachin Students and Youth Union

The exiled All Kachin Students Youth Union (AKSYU) released an album of songs protesting against the 2010 general election yesterday in Kachin State, according to Leonard, the group’s leader. 

About 1,000 copies of the ‘Rise Up’ album are being distributed free of charge in Myitkyina, the Capital of Kachin State, in Northern Burma. The group said the purpose of the project is to educate the public about the misleading tactics used by the junta and encourage people to oppose the election.
anti-election-song2“This election is trying to legalize the 2008 constitution and there is no justice. That is why we are trying to give the message to the people to oppose the election,” said Leonard.

The songs, which are sung by exiled Kachin young people in the Shan language, include titles such as Slavery System, Let Us Rise Up, Cross Sign and Hope to Panglong.  Another song, Giving A Little Opportunity and Lying, is in Rawang.

“Kachin people have been hoping for many years for the coming of a real federal system, but now the military dictatorship is ruling and the constitution only supports the military government. The election is coming and all patriots should know the truth and rise up against the election. This is our right and our chance,” said the words of one song.
anti-election-song1“We hold to the Panglong agreement and we want the federal system which was organized by all ethnic groups,” Leonard said commenting on the song Hope To Panglong.

The AKSYU has also distributed pamphlets and given speeches urging the public to oppose the 2008 constitution.

The album was released on an internet October 25th.

“Providing the information through song is more effective, and it can easily reach everywhere. As well, Kachin people are interested in music,” student leader Leonard said.

Kachin News