Tag Archives: Aung San Suu Kyi

Myitsone Dam Hangs In The Balance

View of Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River at Myitkyina in Kachin State. (Photo credit: Colegota. Licenced under Creative Commons.)

WITH LESS THAN a fortnight left before the commission set up to assess the trade-offs between the economic benefits and the social and environmental damage of planned hydropower dams on the Irrawaddy (seen above) is due to submit its report to Myanmar’s president, word is emerging that the commission may recommend that the controversial Myitsone dam project is scrapped. If so, that would kick a potentially politically prickly decision to President Htin Kyaw (nominally) and (in practice) de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s new NLD-led government.

The $3.6-billion-dollar dam is heavily China-backed. China Power Investment Corp. (CPI) is financing the 4,600MW project and Sinohydro doing the construction — such as it is to date; then Myanmar President Thein Sein suspended work on the dam in 2011 in the face of local protests over village displacement, traditional livelihoods being at risk and dissatisfaction that China will get 90% of the electricity generated.

Beijing has since been pushing hard for a resumption of work, and at times it has seemed set to restart. In March, Vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin called the project crucial for China.

While China has six other hydroelectric projects in Myanmar, not to go ahead now with Myitsone would rupture relations between Beijing and the new democratically elected government in Naypyidaw. Aung San Suu Kyi has been carefully rebuilding the relationship with Beijing, coloured by its support for the former military dictatorship and her desire to open Myanmar to a broader range of foreign investors.

However, when she visited Beijing in August, the Myitsone dam was conspicuously absent from a range of projects on which she and her hosts agreed to enhance their cooperation. The two sides agreed to no more than “to work together find a solution to the issue of the stalled Myitsone Dam project”. Termination of Myitsone would set precedents for other unbuilt or in-construction Chinese-backed infrastructure projects in the region that would be unwelcome to China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ aspirations.

However, cancellation of Myitsone would be popular within Myanmar. Myitsone is in Kachin state. Many ethnic Kachin reportedly said they voted for the NLD in the recent historic elections because they saw the party as their best hope of getting Myitsone stopped.

Alienating those voters risks making the NLD government’s hoped-for settlement with Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups more complicated. The armed wing of the Kachin Independence Organisation, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), is one of those still fighting the government.

Beijing will not want an even more unstable border than it has now. Since the breakdown of a ceasefire between the KIA and the Myanmar military in 2011, It has already had to take thousands of Kachin refugees fleeing the conflict into camps on the Yunnan side of the border. It has brokered talks between the KIA and Naypyidaw in the hope of bringing some stability to the area.

There is a thriving but illicit trade in gems, timber, drugs and increasingly people across the border. China is also the biggest (legitimate) purchaser of Myanmar’s jade, has two oil and gas pipelines that pass through Kachin state and six other dam projects apart from Myitsone, the most notable of which is the Dapein Dam 1, which started generating power in 2011.

There is more than a single dam project in play. Myitsone will be being weighed in the balance of that greater calculation in both capitals while frantic efforts are made to see whether there is any face-saving deal that can be struck. Stakes are high on both sides. As a result, we may well not see the details of the commission’s report when it is handed over on November 11.

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Myanmar And China Reset Rocky But Key Relationship

 

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi in Naipyidaw, April 2016LITTLE UNDERLINES CHINA’S importance to Myanmar as much as Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi choosing to make a meeting with China’s foreign minister Wang Yi , seen above, her first with a foreign leader since her party historically took office on March 30.

China is Myanmar’s largest trading and investment partner, but the two countries have had a rocky relationship over the past few years. Points of dispute have been the fighting in the northeast of the country between Myanmar’s military and ethnic insurgent groups seeking greater autonomy, including ethnic Chinese Kokang, which periodically spills over into China, and controversial Chinese-backed infrastructure projects, notably the Myitsone dam near the headwaters of the Irrawaddy river and an oil and gas pipeline from Yunnan to the Indian Ocean that would let Chinese energy imports from the Gulf bypass the chokepoint of the Malacca Strait.

When Myanmar was still under military rule, China was able to take advantage of crony deals with Myanmar’s generals and some ethnic elites to exploit the country’s natural wealth; huge volumes of illicit timber and jade as well as drugs flow across the border into China.

Former President Thein Sein sent the relationship into a spin in 201o when he unexpectedly and unilaterally suspended the Myitsone project, which was being built by state-owned China Power Investment Corp. and its sub-contractor SinoHydro.

Wang and Suu Kyi at their meeting this week chose to emphasize resetting the relationship on a more positive footing, not discussing what her spokesman described as ‘controversial’ Chinese projects. Wang subsequently said that China would ‘guide’ Chinese companies operating in Myanmar to ‘respect’ Myanmar’s regulations, society, and environment.

That probably means paying a bit more than lip service to local concerns about environmental protection, land-grabs and lack of compensation for displaced communities, and bringing in Chinese labour to build Chinese-financed projects. A deal is likely to be struck to restart Myitsone in some form, probably addressing some of the social responsibility concerns and earmarking more of the electricity the dam will generate for consumption in Myanmar and less to be transmitted back to China.

Nothing is likely to happen until after the end of the rainy season in October at the earliest. However, Beijing has a diplomatic card it can play to support its infrastructure ambitions — helping to broker peace with some of Myanmar’s ethnic insurgent groups. Suu Kyi’s government will need Chinese cooperation if it is to generate the national peace settlement it has said is a priority.

However, while China will remain a key economic and political neighbour, Suu Kyi will want to be careful to avoid over-reliance on Beijing. She will also court U.S. trade, aid and investment and that from other regional powers, notably Japan and India, both of which have reasons of their own or wanting to counterbalance Beijing’s influence in a critical corridor between East and South Asia.

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Beijing’s Helping Hand For Naypyidaw

A new sign of how tight relations have been between Beijing and Naypyidaw: Five months ago, China deported one of the main ethnic Karen rebel leaders to Myanmar after he had been returned to China by Thai authorities following a visa problem when he was trying to return to Bangkok on a flight from Kunming. Mahn Nyein Maung of the Karen National Union (KNU), and who is famous for escaping from Myanmar’s penal colony on Coco Island in 1970 by floating across the Indian Ocean on driftwood, has now reportedly been sentenced to 17 years imprisonment by Myanmar authorities after a secret trial.

The KNU is one of several ethnic groups fighting for autonomy in northern Myanmar, which Naypyidaw has been exploring peace talks while at the same time continuing to wage  military offensives against  them. China is also taking a hard-line against refugees from another rebellious ethnic group in northern Myanmar, the Kachin, whose province borders Yunnan. Reports from a UN humanitarian aid convoy allowed into the area by Naypyidaw say that Chinese authorities told some 2,000 Kachin taking shelter from the fighting at a temporary camp in Laying in Yunnan that if they didn’t go back to Myanmar they would be returned by force. Food and medical supplies from the UN were seemingly not allowed across the border.

Beijing does not want a repeat of the flood of refugees it got when fighting flared up in Kachin in 2009, and some 30,000 fled into Yunnan. This time the feared humanitarian disaster is again starting, but on the Myanmar side of the border. Health conditions are deteriorating and at least one child is reported to have died in the makeshift refugee camps.

Myanmar’s president recently ordered government forces to cease attacks against the Kachin Independence Army, fighting has not stopped along the Sino-Myanmar border. New reports talk for the first time of villages being bombed by the Myanmar air force. We can’t imagine Beijing would allow warplanes to be flying along its borders without its consent, however tacit.

Meanwhile, Beijing is stepping up its diplomatic engagement with Myanmar, including with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who earlier this week had her first meeting with a Chinese ambassador to Myanmar for two decades (shades of lessons learned from Libya perhaps, where Beijing was tardy in establishing contacts with opposition groups). Beijing is also sending its top diplomat, State Councillor Dai Bingguo, to the two-day meeting of Mekong River countries that starts on Monday, though prime minister Wen Jiabao was originally scheduled to attend.

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