By Francis Wade
Burma’s hawkish vice president will travel to Beijing before the end of the month to discuss Naypyidaw’s shock cancellation of a major dam project in northern Burma financed by China.
The suspension of the Myitsone dam has angered China, which appears not to have been consulted over the decision. Around 90 percent of the power would have gone to China, which provided the vast majority of the $US3.6 billion price tag on the project.
Now Tin Aung Myint Oo is being forced to explain the decision to officials in Beijing, and will travel to China shortly after President Thein Sein returns from a visit to India on 15 October, Reuters quoted a government official as saying. The official reason for the vice president’s trip is to attend the opening of a China-Asean Exposition.
The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party, today carried an article responding to protestations against its energy projects in Burma.
“Looking at public opinion in Myanmar [Burma], as some non-government organisations do not trust the government and have been influenced by foreign media, very few present positive information regarding Chinese investors…”
It continued that assessments had been carried out prior to starting on the Myitsone dam, with experts finding the impact would be “rather small”. Environmental groups however point to the estimated 20,000 people likely to be displaced by the dam, as well as long-term damage to the ecosystem of the IrrawaddyRiver, to counter these claims.
Following the announcement a week ago that the dam would not go ahead, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told Burma that it must “guarantee the lawful and legitimate rights and interests of Chinese companies”.
It marks a rare fissure in relations between the two countries: Burma relies on Beijing for political support and the billions of dollars in investment it pours into the country each year, while China sees its neighbour as a veritable goldmine of easily-exploitable natural resources.
Writing in the Jakarta Globe, journalist Bertil Lintner said that the decision may have been triggered by a disagreement within the upper echelons of Burma’s government over the extent to which China’s energy need were dictating the priorities of Naypyidaw.
This theory suggests that growing public disquiet over the dam was less a factor, despite Thein Sein’s reference to “respecting the will of the public” as the cause of the decision.
Although the strong relationship has major benefits for both countries, Burma’s rulers remain intensely nationalistic and wary of an over-dependence on the regional superpower. Recent shifts in the political landscape in Burma also suggest the government is attempting to curry favour with critical western countries.
“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,” Lintner wrote.
In an interview with the New York Times yesterday, US envoy to Burma Derek Mitchell appeared to suggest that Washington was rethinking its punitive measures on Burma in light of recent changes, of which the Myitsone cancellation is being hailed as the most positive.