During his first official trip China, Burmese President U Htin Kyaw will discuss several key issues with Chinese leadership, including President Xi Jinping. With backing from State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, U Htin Kyaw will play an important role in advancing what has been described as paukpaw—or brotherhood—between the two nations.
One of the topics U Htin Kyaw will inevitably bring up will be the controversial Myitsone dam in Kachin State. Reuters reported on Thursday that China has expressed a “willingness to abandon” the US$3.6 billion project in order to pursue other investment opportunities in the country. Yet, concerns remain, as such a move could put Burma in a position in which it must compensate China for the millions already spent on the project.
The 6,000-megawatt dam was suspended under the former U Thein Sein government after strong protests nationwide, but the project was not totally dismantled. Ahead of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s last visit to China in August 2016, President U Htin Kyaw formed a new commission to evaluate all proposed hydropower projects on the Irrawaddy River, including the Myitsone. Some observers saw the formation of the commission as a signal to the West from Burma that the country was moving away from China’s clout.
While the commission is not required to submit its first assessment report to the President’s desk until November 11, it appears that a strategic decision on the unpopular project is imminent.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi received harsh criticism in 2013 when she gave the go-ahead to another Chinese investment project, the Letpadaung copper mine in central Burma.
The mining venture faced protests by locals, and the previous government sent in police to contain the unrest. They launched a pre-dawn raid on demonstrators in November 2012, injuring more than 100 people. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—then an elected MP—was asked to lead a commission investigating the incident and assess whether the project should go ahead in the face of growing opposition.
The commission’s report advised the project to carry on, but recommended that environmental safeguards be upheld, benefits for the community be created, and villagers be compensated for land that had been seized. There is still simmering dissent and occasional bouts of protests regarding the mine—the ruling, after all, was indeed in favor of China.
What is interesting is that key strategic projects carried out by China in Arakan State have received comparatively less media attention and fewer outcries from activists than Letpadaung and Myitsone. Among these is a deep seaport in Kyaukphyu, where China is heavily invested in the Kyaukphyu-Yunnan oil pipeline, and a Special Economic Zone. Meanwhile, a proposed Kyaukphyu-Yunnan railway project faced opposition and was reportedly canceled.
The developments in Kyaukphyu would give China strategic access to the Bay of Bengal, expand its influence throughout the Indian Ocean region and further its “One Belt, One Road” policy, linking trade routes and increasing its influence. To this aim, China has also developed several seaports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Kyaukphyu is key in facilitating the expansion of Beijing’s economic and political power.
Burma is no longer a pariah state, and is now nurturing relationships with allies in Asia as well as in the West. This places Burmese president U Htin Kyaw and his ministers in a unique position concerning the re-negotiation of previous contracts. The challenge for the delegation will be to act in Burma’s national interests, and to refrain from bending to Beijing’s dominance.