Myanmar has very suddenly suspended work on the Chinese-invested Myitsone Dam hydropower project, which had been under construction for two years. If it is ever completed, the dam will form a reservoir covering 766km2 — bigger than the land surface of Singapore — and would cut the flow of Myanmar’s mother river, the Irrawaddy. It would be a Burmese version of China’s Three Gorges Dam and 90 percent of power generated by the dam would be exported to China.
Angry Burmese are saying: “Our Irrawaddy River isn’t there for China’s benefit.”
China is forecast to invest US$3.6 billion in the dam, but what worries China most about the sudden suspension of the project is not the economic loss, but the apparent change in Myanmar’s political orientation. The reason given by the Burmese authorities for shelving construction of the dam is that they could not act contrary to public opinion, by which they mean the strong opposition and resistance the dam faces from Burmese environmentalists, political opponents and ethnic minority people living in the vicinity of the dam site.
Myanmar’s former military government, which bloodily suppressed pro-democracy movements and held Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for many years, was isolated internationally. Only China’s leaders supported it. In November, Myanmar’s military junta suddenly held a “general election,” by means of which the generals changed out of their military uniforms and formed a supposedly civilian government.
What has taken the international community by surprise is that the government, having changed its clothes, has started to change its face as well. In the same month in which the election was held, the authorities released Aung San Suu Kyi from her 15-year-long house arrest. Since the beginning of this year, it has gone further by relaxing restrictions on opposition parties and allowing exiles to return from abroad. Burmese President Thein Sein broke precedent by meeting Aung San Suu Kyi and by negotiating for peaceful resolutions to ethnic conflicts. Official media have dropped their anti-Western propaganda and stopped blocking overseas Web sites. These positive changes have given outside observers cause for cautious optimism.
During its two decades of isolation, Myanmar developed a relationship of mutual dependence with China. Massive Chinese investment has almost turned Myanmar into a Chinese province. The “economic development” sponsored by China in Myanmar is in reality a way of plundering the country’s resources. For example, there has been an unending flow of timber from Myanmar to China, to the extent that what used to be dense forests on the Burmese side of the China-Myanmar border have been almost completely cleared. What China has exported to Myanmar is not just a colonial-style economic model, but also a political model with “Chinese characteristics,” namely autocracy and corruption.
Chinese government media have expressed annoyance at Myanmar’s move. They demonize democracy and democrats, and describe the rapidly growing forces of reform as having a heavy impact on the existing regime and as being something really terrible. Once more, these attitudes reveal the Chinese government’s world view, which is hatred of democracy and fear of democratic forces. The Chinese government’s main political purpose is not to serve the people, but just to remain in power.
The Burmese, for their part, want to move out of China’s orbit. They don’t want to be a “Chinese province” anymore. This trend is as hard to stop as an arrow in flight. As Myanmar escapes from its isolation, China will find itself even more isolated, and that is a prospect that the authorities in Beijing find very worrying.
Wilson Chen is a Chinese democracy activist residing in the US.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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