YANGON— When an invitation for meetings with Chinese Ambassador to Myanmar Hong Liang “to discuss the current situation in Kachin State” arrived at their offices in the Kachin capital of Myitkyina in early December, the last thing both Gumgrawng Awng Hkam and Rev. Hkalam Samson expected was warnings and threats.
The president of the Kachin Democratic Party and the president of the Kachin Baptist Convention had thought they would have a proper discussion on pressing issues which their homeland is facing, including the peace process and displacement of refugees due to fighting between a Kachin ethnic armed group and the Myanmar military.
However, when the Chinese ambassador met Gumgrawng Awng Hkam and Rev. Hkalam Samson on Dec. 28 and 29 respectively at Palm Spring Hotel in Myitkyina, he warned them not to make close friendships with western diplomats, that they otherwise “would face serious consequences.” Both invitees claimed the ambassador briefed them in a bossy manner, warning them not to oppose Chinese projects in Kachin State, including the controversial Myitsone hydropower project.
The meeting invitation came one week after the US and UK ambassadors visited Kachin State. During their meetings in Myitkyina with Kachin political leaders and other prominent members of the Kachin community, both ambassadors discussed the peace process, the safe return of internally displaced persons (IDPs), promotion of education and health and free and fair elections. Both Gumgrawng Awng Hkam and Rev. Hkalam Samson attended those meetings. As a result of the positive encounters, Kachin politicians invited the ambassadors to open liaison offices in Myitkyina in order to promote relations.
This expression of positive relations obviously annoyed the Chinese government. For their economic and geopolitical reasons, China doesn’t like to see western presence in Myanmar, especially in ethnic areas near the Chinese border such as Kachin State. This is not the first time that China has taken steps to maintain the upper hand in Kachin State in terms of the peace process, investment and diplomatic relations. An October report by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) said that in early 2016, the newly appointed Chinese ambassador repeatedly urged the US ambassador not to travel to Kachin State or eastern parts of Shan State, saying the US “should respect China’s interests.”
“He warned if we have more frequent communication with western countries, we would face difficult consequences,” Gumgrawng Awng Hkam told the Irrawaddy.
“What does it mean? We felt threatened,” said Gumgrawng Awng Hkam who is taking the role of vice president of Kachin State People’s Party—a party formed through the recent merging of three popular Kachin parties.
Chinese interests in Kachin State
Lying next to China’s Yunnan Province, Kachin State plays an important role in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy project.
China is always seeking advanced access to land and leverage inside Myanmar. In Kachin State, China has invested at least $6 billion in projects, including in the controversial Myitsone hydropower dam.
Located at the confluence of Myanmar’s “lifeline” the Irrawaddy River, the $3.6 billion project was suspended by then-president U Thein Sein in 2011 amid widespread public outcry over the dam’s serious social and environmental impacts. The dam site has some of the healthiest biodiversity in the world and environmentalists warn that the project would both destroy the natural beauty of the Irrawaddy River and disrupt water flow downstream. They say it could potentially flood an area the size of Singapore, destroying livelihoods and displacing more than 10,000 people.
In Kachin State, under BRI plans, both Myanmar and China have planned to construct a $5 million “economic cooperation zone” in Kanpiketi, a town in Kachin State’s Special Region 1, which is under the control of the militia group New Democratic Army-Kachin. In Myitkyina, a China-backed industrial zone had begun construction with a total project area of 4,751 acres and an expected bill of more than $3 million.
Apart from the Myitsone hydropower dam, several Chinese companies are involved in the construction at least five large dams along the Irrawaddy tributaries, the N’Mai Hka and Mali Hka rivers, since 2007 with a combined installed capacity of more than 1,000 megawatts. However, details on costs are not still clear.
Resumption of the Myitsone Dam
In their meeting in late December, Ambassador Hong Liang strongly pressed the necessity of restarting the Myitsone project, Rev. Hkalam Samson said.
The influential religious leader told The Irrawaddy that the ambassador tried to persuade him that the Myitsone hydropower dam was needed for BRI projects, saying that State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, acting as a chair of Myanmar’s BRI committee, is willing to carry out development projects as a country leader—even though the truth is she once spoke against the Chinese projects.
The president of the Kachin Baptist Convention recalled the Chinese ambassador questioning him about the Kachin people’s perception on the resumption of the dam saying that even Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has changed her mind.
“I replied to him, ‘[both China and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi] need to listen to public voices, because Myitsone is not only a matter for the Kachin people—the river is also important for all people in Myanmar’,” he told The Irrawaddy.
The Kachin Baptist Convention has revealed its strong objection to the Myitsone dam since the outset.
Hong Liang also warned that Chinese investors are losing patience regarding the dam and are hesitating to make new investments in Kachin State.
Rev. Hkalam Samson was not the only person pushed by the ambassador on the resumption of the dam.
“He said [Kachin parties] don’t oppose the Myitsone dam and asked us to convince Kachin people not to oppose it,” Gumgrawng Awng Hkam said.
A 2017 poll by the Yangon School of Political Science found that 85 percent of people in Myanmar oppose the Myitsone dam. If the Kachin political and religious leaders were to accept the dam project, it would create public outcry.
A long legacy of extracting natural resources without public engagement or consultation while the former military junta held power has caused a loss of support for Chinese investments in Kachin, as well as across the country. When the Kachin leaders expressed their people’s concerns to Hong Liang, his only suggestion was to send a complaint letter to the Chinese embassy representative office in Myitkyina if any unfair case was found regarding a Chinese project.
Gumgrawng Awng Hkam said Kachin people were also worried about the rising dominance of the Chinese community in Kachin.
“It is not the right time to give more pressure. Now [China’s] action poses a new threat to China and Kachin future relations,” Gumgrawng Awng Hkam said.
Peace process involvement
Apart from business, China has stepped up its role in the peace process in Myanmar, especially where it relates to conflict areas along the China-Myanmar border.
China’s official line on ethnic armed organizations and the Myanmar military is to follow a policy of noninterference while “persuading for peace and facilitating dialogues.” But in reality, China intervened in the first peace talks held between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and government representatives which were held in Ruili, a town on the Chinese side of the border in February 2013. Ever since, a Chinese special envoy has been involved as an observer or participant at all the peace dialogue meetings here.
China’s role in the peace process became more rigid in 2017, by acting as a peace broker between the military and members of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) which is an organization including the KIA, the Arakan Army (AA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA). A special envoy for Asian affairs in China’s foreign ministry, Sun Guoxiang, travelled back and forth to sit down with the FPNCC in peace negotiations.
The Chinese ambassador sees peace as one of the first priorities for the Kachin people who have been suffering the consequences of war, mentally and physically, for more than seven years. During the meeting in late December, he also said he would help negotiations between the military and the KIA to be smooth.
An estimated 120,000 people have been displaced from their homes since 2011 due to the armed conflict in Kachin State. When the Kachin leaders revealed their concerns for the internally displaced Kachin to be able to return home safely, Hong Liang promised to convince the military’s commander-in-chief, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing to withdraw troops from the villages.
Hong Laing also offered to help Kachin Baptist Convention gain access to some places which have been blocked by the military in order to bring aid to the internally IDPs.
“We didn’t make any deals but we will wait and see whether he carries out the commitments he mentioned,” Rev. Hkalam Samson said.
Hong Liang also advised him to write a letter to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi saying that his organization is willing to accept the development projects in Kachin State, including the Myitsone dam.
According to the Beijing’s official agenda, Chinese President Xi Jinping plans to visit Myanmar early this year. Perhaps the Chinese ambassador is trying to open up possibilities for agreements on development projects to be made during the president’s visit.
During his two-day visit, the ambassador also met three Kachin party leaders, one Shan committee leader and some regional government officials and he gave the same message to all the non-government leaders. Those leaders who met Hong Liang for the first time formed a negative impression of the ambassador.
“He used a bossy tone the whole time. I also feel he threatened us because [he thinks] we are weak,” Rev. Hkalam Samson said.
Samson’s interpretation of the discussion was that “China would do anything to accomplish BRI projects and restart the Myitsone dam in Kachin State.”
The Chinese Embassy in Yangon didn’t reply to The Irrawaddy’s requests on Tuesday and Wednesday for comments on the ambassador’s trip and issues discussed during the meetings.