As Aung San Suu Kyi’s first visit, outside of the ASEAN countries, her call on China is an important undertaking in shaping, reiterating and confirming Burma’s – also known as Myanmar – neutral stance, while reflecting and weighing the pro and contra of a pending and some gearing-up, future economic projects together with China and at the same time, soliciting China’s help in resolving the ethnic armed conflict along the two countries’ border.
One common understanding coming out of this is the Chinese and as well Suu Kyi are of the same opinion, that absence of armed conflict and peaceful atmosphere are needed, if economic development benefiting both countries is to be achieved.
And thus, no wonder, Suu Kyi’s visit although a first courtesy call as a State Counsellor – in fact the de facto leader of the National League for Democracy government – is more focused or inclined to find ways on how to iron out out a more acceptable workable condition, where bilateral economic projects are concerned and how the Chinese could be helpful in ending the armed ethnic conflict along the two countries’ common border.
Let us take a close look on if Suu Kyi and the Chinese were able to advance their mutual benefit on all the scores mentioned.
State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, at the invitation of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, paid an official visit to China from 17th to 21st August. During the visit, she met Chinese President Xi Jinping and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to promote bilateral relations and friendship. She also met with Zhang Dejiang of Chairman of Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. During her visit to China, the Joint Press Release between Myanmar and China was issued as follows:
- The two sides would carry forward their traditional friendship and advancing their comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership in the new era;
- Affirmed that they would continue to uphold good neighbourly policy toward each other, the interests of the two peoples, adopt a strategic and long-term perspective, and work to achieve new progress in their comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership;
- Agreed to promote rule of law in the border areas, and to enhance trade, economic cooperation and various forms of friendly exchanges that would contribute to the well-being of the peoples, agreed to maintain close coordination on global issues such as climate change, natural disasters and communicable diseases;
- Myanmar welcomed China’s “Belt and Road” initiative and the initiative of Bangladesh-China-India- Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor and thanked China for its active and constructive support to Myanmar’s efforts for national reconciliation and peace process; and
- State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi conveyed the cordial invitation of President U Htin Kyaw to Chinese President Xi Jinping to pay a state visit to Myanmar. (Source: The Global New Light of Myanmar – 20 August 2016)
Myitsone and Salween Dams
While the controversial Myitsone Dam issue was not mentioned and touched, at least in the joint-statement between China and Burma’s State Counsellor, the intense lobbying piece started to appear in China’s newspaper Global Times, considered to be the mouthpiece of the government.
The piece titled “Suu Kyi visit raises dam project hopes”, written by Yu Ning, arguing, “The Myitsone project will boost local economic and social development and contribute to addressing the power shortage that has plagued 70 percent of Myanmar’s cities, towns and villages.”
She added, “Based on the current agreement, Myanmar will get 10 percent of the electricity produced for free and the dam will become the sole property of Myanmar decades later. As about 60.7 percent of the return on investment will go to Myanmar, it’s estimated that Myanmar would receive roughly $17 billion from the project over the contracted 50-year period. This revenue, if properly used, will inject new impetus to vitalize the backward economy of northern Myanmar.”
Meanwhile, connected to this controversial Myitsone Dam, back at home, the anti-Salween Dam movement is also gaining momentum. People have been correctly asking as to, while the controversial Myitsone Dam has been taken seriously, forming commission to study the project, due to the outcry of public anti-dam stance, why has the NLD regime given a go ahead construction, where the damming of Salween river is concerned?
Last Wednesday, on 17 August, twenty-six Shan-based organizations sent an open letter to State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi, calling on her government to put an immediate halt to hydroelectric dam projects on the Salween River.
The blueprints for a hydropower project on the Salween include a series of dams in Shan State: the 7,100 megawatt Mong Ton Dam; the 1,400 MW Kunlong Dam; the 1,200 MW Nong Pha Dam; and the 200 MW Manntaung Dam. The project would also include plans for a 4,000 MW Ywathit Dam in Karenni State, and the 1,360 MW Hat Gyi Dam in Karen State. Investors in the projects include the China Three Gorges Corporation, a Chinese state-owned firm which operates the world’s largest dam on the Yangtze River. The other foreign firms involved in the Salween project are: Sinohydro; China Southern Grid; and a subsidiary of the state-run Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand.
On August 12, the Burmese government, which is led by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, announced that the hydropower projects on the Salween River will be continued as the country is in need of energy.
The letter pointed out: “The unilateral decision to go ahead with the Salween dams before political dialogue about federalism has even begun, is depriving ethnic communities of their right to decide about natural resources in their areas, and indicates a lack of sincerity towards the peace process. Coming only weeks before the planned “21st Century Panglong Conference,” this green light to the Salween dams is highly worrying.”
It stressed: “ That the Salween river basin has been a conflict area for decades, where the Burma Army has been relentlessly expanding and committing systematic atrocities against villagers in its attempts to control ethnic lands and resources. Pushing ahead with these unpopular dams will inevitably lead to more Burma Army militarization, increased conflict, and ongoing atrocities.”
According to the related contracts, when the projects are completed, 90 percent of the electricity generated is to be exported to China and Thailand.
Environmentalist Sai Khur Hseng said that the planned dam projects are in active earthquake areas.
“Yesterday, there was an earthquake on the Nam Ting river [near the site of Kun Long Dam],” he said. “If this dam is built, the people who live along the river in Tanyan Township will be heavily impacted,” according to the recent report of SHAN.
Chinese involvement in Burma’s peace process has been there since the beginning of the previous President Thein Sein’s initiatives to end the ethnic conflict in 2011. But it is a welcome, additional move to have a formal endorsement with the promise to help peace prevail along the two countries’ border and beyond.
According to Poe Than Gyaung, spokesman for the Communist Party of Burma, in his Radio Free Asia interview on 20 August, when asked about how much China could do to help with the peace process, replied that the solution would depend on the stakeholders within the country and whether the military wanted to stop fighting and have a desire to achieve peace. The Chinese could only do so much to persuade the parties involved to opt for peace, he stressed.
Closely connected to this is the all-inclusiveness problematic which the military is not reasonably cooperating by side-lining the three Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) that it dislike for several reasons, even though Suu Kyi is keen to have it as all-inclusive as possible, regardless of whether the EAOs have signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement or not.
Thus it could be said even if the Chinese could nudge the EAOs that it has influence to join the peace process, the military’s stubbornness to exclude some of the EAOs could derail or create problems for the whole peace process and China won’t be able to do much on this score.
Regarding the Myitsone Dam, it seems that Suu Kyi has been able to buy time until the Dam Commission files it’s finding on 11 November and presumes that the Chinese would be acceptable to the suggestion made by it.
All in all, the result of Suu Kyi’s China visit could be said as having mixed results, as one billion Chinese Yuan (about 151 million dollars) to support Burma’s growth and development has been given; an agreement to survey the feasibility study to construct Kunlong bridge; and promises to constructively cooperate in Burma’s quest to achieve peace; while other economic bilateral projects that China is keen to undertake are still left unaddressed, at least publicly.
For now, optimism aside, China seems to be happy with its “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” approach and Suu Kyi is satisfied with her more “balanced relationship” undertaking vis a vis China, and what is going to come out of this in concrete terms is anybody’s guess.