The relations between Myanmar and China that flourished during the days of Military Junta regime in Myanmar have become strained with the suspension of Myitsone dam.
The civilian president Thein Sein, who took power in 2009, has suspended the work of the dam mainly due to environmental concerns stating that cancellation has been ordered as per “will of the people” clearly implying that his government takes environmental concerns more seriously than the previous ruling ‘military Junta’.
Irked by the decision of civilian president, China is making political inroads in the newly emerged political forces in Burma.
China is now developing good relations with the Chairman Shwe Mann of the Union solidarity and Development Party who is also the speaker of the lower house, the Senior general Min Aung Hlaing who commands the military, and the democratic opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
Moreover Chinese political Pundits perceive Shwe Mann as the most likely winner of the presidency in the 2015 elections. Beijing thus appears eager to cultivate close relations with him. However at official level China is threatening Myanmar to “ protect the legal and legitimate rights of the Chinese companies” following the suspension of Myitsone Dam project.
Since its inception, Mega Myitsone Dam Project has been surrounded by hosts of environmental concerns, human rights and ethnicity issues, matters concerning autonomous claims of the area where the dam was to be built and uncertainly upon the relocation of the displaced populace further aggravated the matter.
Such matters were not addressed either before or during the course of execution of the project. These matters that plague the execution of projects would now have to be addressed in a meaningful manner.
Issues of autonomy in the areas of dam projects, local people armies threatening disruption of work of projects, social issues- where the local populace feels deprived of their ancestral lands without having been provided with alternative means of livelihood till jobs are provided after the completion of projects are taken as a serious matter of concern for the Myanmar’s government.
Further Burmese anticipate the fear wherein their country being colonized by the Chinese migrants in the name of investment for development of hydroelectric project.
These issues require fresh evaluation and reconciliation before the project lying in limbo can be resumed.
At the very outset, the project earmarks 90% of electricity generated for the China’s Yunan province for industrialization. In comparison 10% share allocated to Burma is meager especially when the project entails serious damage to the Irrawaddy River basin thriving in fishing industry and rice bowl of Burma.
In addition the affected populace of the dam area, displaced from their ancestral fertile land, will face the problem for being provided with alternative means of livelihood. About 120000 of such displaced people are living in temporary houses without any fertile soil to raise their crop.
The environmental risks of Myitsone Dam that threatens the flow of Irrawaddy river are enormous. The proposed 152 meter high dam which if built will create a reservoir of the size of Singapore. This will be situated between the Yunnan and sagging faults.
A geological study indicates that a major shift in the sagaing Fault could soon occur and might affect the new capital Naypaidaw. This aspect requires fresh evaluation.
The Dam site is situated in ethnic minority area where resident armed group Kanchin Independence Army is fighting for Autonomy. As the work on the dam got underway, the Kanchin Independence Army broke a 17 year old ceasefire to attack the dam site.
At Official level, China and Myanmar are undertaking friendly visits to smoothen the strained relations due to the suspension of the Myitsone Dam. But these friendly official visits conceal an unenthusiastic reality.
As Myanmar is rich in natural resources, western countries are keen in doing business in the country that has been isolated for decades. As a result whenever there are reports of human rights abuses, the international community reacts with caution, careful not to upset the civilian government.
Moreover, the Buddhist-Rohingya conflict in Myanmar has created a widening zone of instability in the region, stretching beyond Myanmar to Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia. The majority Buddhists of Myanmar have repeatedly attacked Rohingyas, a Bengali-speaking Muslim minority community who are treated by Myanmar as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
China and Myanmar share a 2,000-km border, and Myanmar is looked upon as the key to China’s pursuit of regional and border stability and to fulfilling its economic need for natural resources. But no member of Politburo Standing Committee has visited Myanmar till date. While President Xi Jinping and Premier LI Keqiang are consistently visiting ASEAN member countries but Myanmar is being deliberately left out because of strained relations following the suspension of Myitsone Dam. Likewise on the economic front, China’s direct investment in Myanmar has fallen by more than 90% within an year in 2012. While Chinese investments in Myanmar have slowed, investments in other Southeast Asian countries have increased to many folds.
In all probability, the likelihood of the resumption of Myitsone Dam will follow the upswing or otherwise of political relations between the two countries, keeping in view the assessment and solution of environmental risks connected with the dam.
Meanwhile China’s fresh approaches to different political power centres in Myanmar are indicative of China’s actively catching up with Myanmar’s new political setup and its growing interference.
The West has lately reduced economic sanctions against Myanmar and allowed its companies to look into investment prospects in Myanmar and access its resources. Much will depend on how the situation unfolds in the general election in Myanmar which is due in 2015.