In Person

‘Kyaukphyu BRI Projects a Bigger Threat Than Myitsone’

By The Irrawaddy 8 April 2019

Amid growing public concern about Chinese-backed development projects in Myanmar, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will leave for Beijing late this month to attend the second Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) summit. During her meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping there, she is quite likely to discuss the Myitsone Dam, the most controversial Chinese project in the country so far. As well the Myitsone dam, another important China-backed development project is now underway on the shore of Bay of Bengal in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine. Prior to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to China, The Irrawaddy talks to Bertil Linter, a Swedish journalist and author who has been covering Myanmar and Southeast Asia for nearly four decades, on China’s major involvement—from development projects to the peace process—in the country.

The momentum to cancel the Myitsone dam is building in Myanmar. This coincides with State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s upcoming visit to China where she will attend the second BRI summit. She has been very vague about her stance on the dam and some articles written by the NLD (National League for Democracy) party members have been indicating that the dam should get the go-ahead. Government leaders are suggesting the dam is downsized or relocated. Moreover, several projects which the current government has agreed to implement with China have not been disclosed to the public. What is your opinion on this?

I believe Daw Aung San Suu Kyi must be aware of the fact that it would be political suicide to agree on a resumption of the Myitsone project. With elections coming up next year, any Myanmar politician would have to think carefully before agreeing to such a controversial, and hugely unpopular, project like this one. We all remember how much she was against it when she was in opposition. Why does she appear to have softened her stance on the matter? That’s a question that should be posed to her.

On the Myitsone issue, China has become more aggressive in pressuring Kachin groups and the Myanmar government to accept the project. This seems to be unprecedented and some say that the Beijing leaders have demonstrated their stronger influence over this government compared to previous ones, including U Thein Sein’s and the regime led by Snr-Gen Than Shwe. If so, why? What is your view?

I am actually very surprised at China’s attempts to have the Myitsone project restarted. Beijing must be aware of how much resentment, and anti-Chinese sentiment, it causes among the public at large. If the Chinese really want to improve their image in Myanmar, they should scrap the project altogether, not push the public into becoming more anti-Chinese than they already are.

The attention and public emotion surrounding the Myitsone project are understandable but the Kyaukphyu port project has received less attention from CSOs (civil society organizations) and the media. Reports also suggest plans to build a high-speed railroad connecting China’s southern city of Kunming and the Kyaukphyu port in the Bay of Bengal are back on track. Debt-trap concerns and fears of compromised sovereignty are growing. Many think Kyaukphyu is more important than Myitsone and Myanmar officials have quietly expressed their concern to us. Your view will be appreciated.

Yes, China’s main interest in Myanmar is Kyaukphyu, not Myitsone. The high-speed railway from Yunnan to Kyaukphyu, the deep-sea port there and the proposed economic zone in the same area would give China’s landlocked interior provinces an outlet to the Indian Ocean. But it’s not only a question of exporting goods to and from Myanmar, Kyaukphyu is strategically important for the entire BRI project which includes Chinese interest in, and perhaps also control of, ports in the Indo-Pacific region.

We have seen many external or foreign players in Myanmar’s “peace process”— under U Thein Sein we had the UN, western peace-makers and even the United States involved and highly-paid peace brokers and advisors flocked into Myanmar. But under the current government the conflict deepened. China seems to be playing a key role in current peace process efforts. Almost all ethnic insurgent groups in the north are backed by China. It seems a bleak future is awaiting conflict-ridden Myanmar and the new outbreak of conflict in Rakhine State between the Arakan Army (AA) and government forces is a major concern. Do you think China can be an honest broker in peace process in Myanmar?

Unlike all the Western peacemakers, China has vital strategic interests in Myanmar which it wants to defend and promote, and that is the so-called China-Myanmar Economic Corridor and Beijing’s wider strategic designs for the entire Indo-Pacific region. China’s relations with the ethnic groups in the north, and they make up more than 80 percent of all armed, non-state actors in Myanmar, also gives it an advantage over the Western peacemakers who don’t seem to understand what they have gotten themselves into. And it is important to remember that China is not interested in peace, meaning a final, peaceful solution to Myanmar’s civil wars and ethnic conflicts. China wants stability which it can use to its strategic advantage. China does not want war because that would cause unrest along the common border and a flood of refugees into Yunnan, but an unresolved conflict, over which it can exercise control, is definitely in its interest, at least for the foreseeable future — and that means until China gets what it wants in Myanmar, access to the Indian Ocean. The actual, so-called “peace process” is secondary, just part of a policy with wider ramifications.

Myanmar army generals are cunning and manipulative but they seem to understand China as they have institutional memories and fought against communists and insurgents backed by China in the past. So they took a neutral role to rebalance Myanmar under U Thein Sein’s government. But the current government does not seem to have such institutional memories and emotions to strike a balance. What’s your opinion on that?

Whatever we may think of the Myanmar Army and its abysmal human-rights record, they are fiercely nationalistic and see themselves as guardians of the country’s sovereignty. Keeping China, an old adversary which once gave massive support to the Communist Party of Burma, at bay should be seen in that perspective. Thousands of Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) soldiers died in that war, killed by Chinese bullets, and many older officers have not forgotten that. The largely civilian government may see things differently. It appears to be more willing to appease China, perhaps because China is the main investor in Myanmar and the country’s main foreign trading partner.

Some said that the West’s pressure on the government is pushing the country into China’s orbit. Do you buy that?

Definitely, and China is taking full advantage of that to enhance its own strategic interests in Myanmar.