At a time when Asian countries are increasingly worried about China’s growing assertiveness, Burma’s rejection of a huge Chinese hydroelectric dam project has raised new questions: Is this a rare victory for civil society in a repressive country? Or does it indicate an internal dispute over the country’s dependence on China? Regardless of the answers to these questions, the public difference over a close ally’s project marks a new stage in the Burma-China relationship.
On September 30, Burma’s new president, Thein Sein, sent a statement to the country’s parliament announcing that a joint venture with China to build a mega-dam in the far north of the country had been suspended because “it was contrary to the will of the people.” The US$3.6 billion The Myitsone Dam would have been world’s 15th tallest and submerged 766 square kilometers of forestland, an area bigger than Singapore.
It’s unclear if Chinese counterparts were consulted before the decision was made public. Burma has depended on its powerful northern neighbor for trade, political support and arms deliveries since the West shunned the Burmese regime following massacres of pro-democracy demonstrators in 1988.
Public opinion may have played its part. Under the 2006 deal, 90 percent of power generated from Myitsone would have gone to China. Anger over environmental destruction galvanized people against the regime in a way that the country had not seen for years. The dam was a dagger in the heart of the Kachins, the predominant ethnic minority in the area. Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi threw her support behind the anti-dam movement. Many made their voices heard over Facebook – a new tool for anti-regime activists.
People inside Burma can’t protest openly, but "Save the Irrawaddy" meetings have been held in Rangoon. Burmese exiles have staged anti-Chinese demonstrations outside Burmese and Chinese embassies abroad. Anti-Chinese sentiment is growing in Burma, especially in the north where Chinese influence is the strongest. According to reports from Kachin State, many Chinese nationals working in the state, including traders, have fled to China following the outbreak of hostilities between the Kachin Independence Army and government forces.
But public opinion has never been a strong factor when it comes to influencing the Burmese regime. The regime doesn’t want to risk another outbreak of anti-government protests similar to the 2007 monks’ movement and invite international condemnation with more US and EU sanctions.
Burma has historically had a strained relationship with its northern neighbor. From the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 until 1962, Beijing maintained a cordial relationship with the non-aligned democratic government of Prime Minister U Nu. Burma was the first country outside the communist bloc to recognize the new regime in Beijing. After General Ne Win staged a coup d’etat in 1962, the Chinese, long wary of the ambitious, sometimes unpredictable general, prepared for all-out support for the insurgent Communist Party of Burma (CPB).
Anti-Chinese riots in Rangoon in 1967 – orchestrated by military authorities to deflect public anger over a deteriorating economy – provided an excuse for Chinese to intervene. On New Year’s Day 1968, armed CPB units entered northeastern Burma from China’s Yunnan Province. Over the next decade, China poured more aid into the CPB effort than any other communist movement outside of Indochina.
A clandestine radio station, the People’s Voice of Burma, began transmitting from the Yunnan side of the frontier in 1971. Thousands of Chinese streamed across the border, providing additional support to the CPB.
Mao’s death in 1976, and the subsequent return to power of pragmatist Deng Xiaoping, marked the beginning of the end of massive Chinese aid to the CPB. Supporting revolutionary movements in the region was no longer in Beijing's interest. Still, China coveted Burma’s forests, rich deposits of minerals and natural gas, and hydroelectric power potential.
Ending Chinese support to the CPB ushered in a more cordial era in Sino-Burmese relations, the relations growing by leaps and bound after the 1988 bloody suppression of pro-democracy movement in Burma. Apart from supplying Burma with vast quantities of military hardware, by 1991, Chinese experts assisted in a series of infrastructure projects. Chinese military advisers soon arrived, the first foreign military personnel stationed in Burma since the 1950s. Cross-border trade between China and Burma boomed.
More recently, China has provided Burma with low-interest loans, and Chinese investment in the sanctions-hit economy is substantial, particularly true of the energy sector. For example, an agreement on a gas pipeline from the Bay of Bengal will be supplemented with an oil pipeline designed to allow Chinese ships carrying Middle Eastern oil to skirt the congested Malacca Strait.
The heavy dependence on China has led to consternation among many Burmese military leaders. Those leaders do not forget that they once fought against the China-backed CPB, that their comrades were killed by Chinese arms. Aung Lynn Htut, a former intelligence officer who sought US political asylum in 2005, drew on those memories in a September commentary for The Irrawaddy, a website run by Burmese exiles.
China has called for “talks” after President Thein Sein’s statement, but skeptics point out that a 2009 internal report by the China Power Investment Corporation, the company behind the dam, said that the size was unnecessary and called for the project to be scrapped. And China still has contracts to build six other mega-dams on the Irrawaddy and source rivers. That Thein Sein dared to make his public statement reveals a wrinkle in Sino-Burmese relations – and how Burma may try to balance foreign relations, perhaps returning to its former policy of strict neutrality and non-alignment.
Some academic observers assert that Beijing’s influence over the Burmese government is exaggerated. China, the argument goes, “has not been as successful in winning Burma’s confidence as often is reported,” as suggested by Andrew Selth, author and strategic studies researcher. The source of Burma’s arms suppliers offers evidence: Although China provided Burma with up to US$1.6 billion worth of military hardware since 1989, the regime has recently turned to Russia, the Ukraine and North Korea to diversify its arms-procurement program.
Instead of democratizing the country, Burma’s new government seems to have chosen to play “the China card,” an attempt to win support of the West. An unsigned opinion piece in The Bangkok Post, written by a Burmese government official, reportedly approved at the highest level in Naypyidaw, lays out its position: “We do not want our country to become a satellite state of the Chinese government. However, Western countries should not force us into a corner where we have no option but to increasingly rely on China.”
In this context, “force” means insistence on genuine democratic reforms. From the regime’s point of view, improved relations with the West could be accomplished simply by playing up the Chinese threat, with the hope of diminishing Western criticism of the regime.
But the regime has time and again stressed that how the country is governed is an internal matter. The West must decide if it will play along.
Bertil Lintner is a Swedish journalist based in Thailand and the author of several works on Asia, including Blood Brothers: The Criminal Underworld of Asia and Great Leader, Dear Leader: Demystifying North Korea under the Kim Clan. Rights:Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. YaleGlobal Online