Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Was Dam Decision a Case of 'China Be Damned'?

Was Burmese President Thein Sein's decision last week to suspend work on the Myitsone hydropower dam a rash attempt to bolster his government's reformist credentials at the expense of relations with Beijing, or part of a more calculated effort to improve Burma's standing in the West while still retaining close ties with China?

While the jury is still out on this question, it appears that Thein Sein's decision has indeed helped to improve his image as a reformer, and that so far, he hasn't had to pay too great a price for shelving a project prized by energy-hungry China.

To the Burmese public and the outside world, the move was a wholly unexpected political concession to a growing popular movement opposed to the dam, located at the source of Burma's most important river, the Irrawaddy, and in the heartland of Kachin culture.

The result has been a sudden upsurge in support for Thein Sein's six-month-old administration, which until last week had been struggling to convince a skeptical public and the international community that Burma has made a genuine political transition from military rule.

Even his staunchest critics have hailed his decision as almost unprecedented in the half-century since the army first seized power, marking the first time that a military-backed ruler had responded positively to public demands.

At the same time, however, it appears that Thein Sein believed that he could afford to make such a dramatic gesture without seriously harming relations with China. Beijing still has a lot to gain from Burma's untapped natural resources and also needs to successfully implement its other investments in the country, such as the economically and strategically important oil pipeline now being constructed from the Bay of Bengal to China's Yunnan Province through Burma.

Furthermore, Thein Sein knows that Beijing will want to maintain its status as his government's foremost ally, to prevent Burma from growing closer to the Western powers that are showing a strong interest in engaging Naypyidaw.

For his part, Thein Sein also knows that he needs China's backing, because Burma remains under international sanctions—despite tentative praise from the West over the Myitsone decision and his engagement with the Aung San Suu Kyi-led opposition—and because he himself, as a senior member of the former ruling junta, could face prosecution for massive human rights abuses.

China is also important because wars with ethnic minorities continue to rage near the Sino-Burmese border, and resolving these conflicts will require Chinese cooperation.

Although Beijing has long since abandoned its policy of fomenting insurgency in Burma's borderlands, its influence over such groups as the 20,000-strong United Wa State Army and the 10,000-strong Kachin Independence Army, both operating on the two countries' shared border, can't be neglected by Naypyidaw if it is serious about resolving the country's ethnic issues.

Despite these considerations, however, Thein Sein has been remarkably unresponsive to calls from the Chinese Foreign Ministry for “consultations” over the Myitsone issue and warnings from the president of the state-owned China Power Investment Corporation that Napyidaw could face legal action over the suspension of the project.

It remains unclear if Thein Sein will guarantee China that the project can be resumed after his presidency ends in 2016, but he can be expected to patch up relations with Beijing by offering other economic concessions and making sure that construction of the oil pipeline proceeds without any glitches.

At any rate, Thein Sein appears to be confident that good relations can be maintained. In his letter to the Burmese Hluttaws, or Houses of Parliament, in which he announced his decision, he said: “I would like to inform the Hluttaws that coordination will be made with the neighboring friendly nation, the People's Republic of China, to accept the agreements regarding the project without undermining cordial relations.”

Chan Tun, a former Burmese ambassador to Beijing, expressed hope that both governments will successfully resolve this issue.

“I don't think this issue will damage bilateral relations. They will work it out smoothly, I think,” he said.

Meanwhile, some observers have suggested that Beijing and Naypyidaw may in fact be collaborating with each other to defuse resistance to the Myitsone Project by postponing it for a few years, with the intention of restarting it again in a few years.

Others, however, have not ruled out the possibility that Thein Sein's decision was designed to throw Beijing off balance.

Burmese analyst Dr Zarni, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, said that though Naypyidaw probably tipped off Chinese leaders about its plan to suspend the dam project, it was possible that the dam decision was an act of calculated recklessness.

“Pyongyang also does this kind of thing from time to time,” he said.
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