Guest Column

Solution to the Myitsone Deadlock: A Referendum?

By Aung Zin Phyo Thein 2 February 2019

Recently, there has been a marked escalation in the Chinese government’s attempts at reviving the controversial Myitsone Dam project. Since a tense meeting by the Chinese Embassy with Kachin leaders, the actions of both the Chinese and Myanmar governments have only heightened fears that the mammoth US$3.6-billion, 6,000 MW dam will be pushed forward, risking the livelihoods of thousands of people and endangering crucial biodiversity.

The NLD government’s rhetoric over the project has been, at best, feeble. Minister for Investment and Foreign Economic Relations U Thaung Tun stated that, while public anxiety should be respected, the project should continue as companies have already heavily invested in it. His remark echoed a comment by State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (who had been an ardent critic of the dam in 2011) in Kalay the previous week in which she called for deals made under the previous government to be respected. According to U Thaung Tun, alternative areas have been explored. So far, however, these areas have not been outlined to the public, which only serves to fuel speculation.

Respect for public anxiety: What, in practice, has that entailed so far? As of this moment, this respect has taken the form of hollow reassurances that match up little with actions on the ground.  The most notable example of this was the recent dismissal of three ministers in Kachin State. The said ministers—U H Hla Aung, U Mya Thein and U Thin Lwin—were each responsible for key areas that would have been impacted by the Myitsone project. No reason has been given for their dismissals, which the Transparency and Accountability Network Kachin have demanded. Moreover, the decision by the Ministry of Electricity and Energy to draft a brand-new Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) with the China Renewable Energy Engineering Institute—a Chinese National Energy Agency-affiliated think tank—has drawn further public ire, as the MOEE had backed out of endorsing an International Finance Corporation (IFC) SEA.

Do unconvincingly hollow statements, broken promises and unexplained dismissals amount to respect?

If the Minister and the State Counselor truly wish to respect not only the will of the people, but also the immediate future of Myanmar-China relations, there remains one course of action: a government-sanctioned popular referendum on the Myitsone project.

Repeat: a popular referendum on the Myitsone project.

Why this particular route?

Firstly, a popular referendum to decide the progress of a Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project would be unprecedented. What has been done thus far includes suspensions or scale-backs by leaders, either out of fear of indebtedness (as seen in the Kyaukphyu deep seaport) or through the need to fulfil anti-China electoral pledges, as shown in Malaysia. No government to date has used a general vote to decide the progress of a BRI project…yet.

Secondly, the Myitsone project is a national issue; the consequences of the project going ahead will impact future generations for years to come.

Moreover, there exist no legal barriers to holding a referendum on the Myitsone project. According to experts, the time frame for organizing a nationwide referendum ranges from three to five months—leaving just enough time before 2020.

The barriers that exist are political, and understandably so. As Brexit in the U.K. has shown, a poorly concocted and unnecessary “power-play” referendum can backfire spectacularly. On the surface, the same would seem to apply if the NLD entertained this idea, given its recent rhetoric. However, calling for a referendum on the project would, contrary to assumptions, strengthen the government’s position among the public at a very crucial time.

It is no secret that the NLD’s popularity has been on the wane since it officially took power in 2016. A step toward building a public consensus against what many in the country have deemed a neo-colonial incursion would strengthen the government’s (and the party’s) bargaining position in dealing with its Chinese counterparts. Equally important is that a referendum would address the issue of public consultation in a way that no other mechanism could, for the time being. BRI projects have been criticized for failing to take into account local concerns—an issue a referendum could address to a considerable, nationwide degree.

Added to that, recognition by China of the referendum’s outcome could go some distance toward repairing the country’s image among the Myanmar public—an image that received a minor boost following China’s support for Myanmar on the international stage in the wake of the Rakhine crisis. China has repeatedly vowed to respect the sovereignty of Myanmar, a critical BRI partner, and it must recognize the democratic will of the people in host countries. A Cornell University study published in 2017 highlights the fact that locals in Myanmar would not discriminate against Chinese investment so long as community concerns are acknowledged.

Both the Myanmar and the Chinese governments need to recognize that being against the Myitsone project is NOT being anti-China or anti-Chinese investment. The project as it stands hurts and will continue hurting the complex yet indispensable relations between the two countries. It can even be argued that the way the Myitsone project is handled will determine the success of other projects under the BRI banner.

In theory, at its core, the BRI is about respect—respecting the notion that building up infrastructure is intended to mutually benefit China and the recipient countries by improving ties and lives. Acknowledging the democratic desire of the people is at the core of mutual respect, and as such China should and must respect the decision of Myanmar’s people—a decision that can be consolidated by a referendum.

On this issue, it is critical for people to rise above politics. The very same people that elected the NLD to power are, at a minimum, owed a stake in the progress of a project that affects their country.

Aung Zin Phyo Thein is a graduate student in the U.K. whose independent research focuses on the Belt and Road Initiative.