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 dispute over a close ally’s project marks a new stage in the Burma-China relationship.
On Sept. 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 megadam in Burma’s far north had been suspended because “it was contrary to the will of the people.” The $3.6 billion 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 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 the country had not seen for years. The dam was a dagger in the heart of the Kachins, the area’s predominant ethnic minority. 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.
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 northern Kachin state, where Chinese influence is the strongest. According to reports, many Chinese nationals working there have fled to their home country following the outbreak of hostilities between the Kachin Independence Army and government forces.
Despite all that, however, the Burmese regime has never cared enough about public opinion to let it impact something as monumental as this. More likely, dissatisfaction within the armed forces over China’s growing influence in the country was the real reason for suspending the dam project.
The relationship between Burma and its northern neighbor has historically been strained. After Gen. Ne Win staged a coup in 1962 against a Burmese government that had long maintained a cordial relationship with Beijing, the Chinese prepared for all-out support of the insurgent Communist Party of Burma. Anti-Chinese riots in Rangoon in 1967 — orchestrated, ironically, by domestic military authorities to deflect public anger over a deteriorating economy — provided an excuse for the Chinese to intervene. On New Year’s Day 1968, armed CPB units entered northeastern Burma from China’s Yunnan province. In the next decade, China poured more aid into the CPB effort than any other communist movement outside of Indochina.
Mao’s death in 1976,however, and the subsequent return to power of pragmatist Deng Xiaoping marked the beginning of the end to massive Chinese aid for the CPB. Supporting revolutionary movements in the region was no longer in Beijing’s interest. Still, China coveted Burma’s forests, rich mineral and natural gas deposits and hydroelectric potential.
After the bloody 1988 suppression of a pro-democracy movement in Burma, Sino-Burmese relations grew by leaps and bounds. By 1991, apart from supplying Burma with vast quantities of military hardware, the Chinese had sent experts to assist in a series of infrastructure projects.
More recently, China has provided Burma with low-interest loans, and Chinese investment in the sanctions-hit economy is substantial. This is particularly true of the energy sector. For example, an agreement on a gas pipeline from the Bay of Bengal will be supplemented with an oil pipeline designed to allow Chinese ships carrying Middle Eastern oil to skirt the congested and pirate-ridden Malacca Strait.
This heavy dependence has led to consternation among many Burmese military leaders. They have not forgotten yesterday’s battles against the China-backed CPB, nor their comrades who were killed by Chinese arms. Aung Lynn Htut, a former intelligence officer who sought political asylum in the United States in 2005, drew on such memories in a September commentary for The Irrawaddy, a Burmese exile newsmagazine run out of Thailand.
China has called for “talks” after Thein Sein’s proclamation, but skeptics point out that a 2009 internal report by the China Power Investment Corporation, the company behind the dam, had already called for the project to be scrapped, saying its size was unnecessary. China still has contracts to build six other megadams in Burma.
That Thein Sein dared to make his such a public pronouncement reveals a wrinkle in Sino-Burmese relations, and it signals a possible return for Burma to its former policy of strict neutrality and non-alignment.
Some academic observers assert that Beijing’s influence has been exaggerated. China, according to author Andrew Selth, “has not been as successful in winning Burma’s confidence as often is reported.” The source of Burma’s arms supply offers evidence: Although China has provided Burma with up to $1.6 billion worth of military hardware since 1989, the regime has recently turned to Russia, Ukraine and North Korea.
Instead of democratizing the country, Burma’s new government seems to have chosen to play “the China card,” an attempt to win the support of the West. An unsigned opinion piece in The Bangkok Post, written by a Burmese government official, reportedly approved at the highest level in Naypyidaw, lays out its position: “We do not want our country to become a satellite state of the Chinese government. However, Western countries should not force us into a corner where we have no option but to increasingly rely on China.”
In this context, “force” means insistence on genuine democratic reforms. From the Burmese regime’s point of view, improved relations with the West could be accomplished simply by playing up the Chinese threat, with the hope of diminishing Western criticism of the regime.
But the regime has time and again stressed that how the country is governed is an internal matter. The West must decide if it will play along.
Bertil Lintner is a Swedish journalist based in Thailand and the author of “Blood Brothers: The Criminal Underworld of Asia.”