Myanmar at crossroads over Chinese development projects

Extraction of natural resources from Kachin state has only benefitted China, says local lawmaker
Myanmar at crossroads over Chinese development projects

Protesters rally on June 4 against Chinese ambassador Hong Liang who visited Myitkyina, the Kachin state capital, in a bid to restart the controversial Myitsone Dam project. (Photo from Hkun Awng Nlam/Facebook)

When Chinese ambassador to Myanmar, Hong Liang, visited Kachin state on June 3 to gain support for the resumption of a controversial dam project, it was another example of China's desire to harness the Southeast Asian nation for its own economic benefit.

China has wanted to resume construction of the US$ 3.8 billion Myitsone Dam, ever since it was suspended by the previous the administration of President Thein Sein on Sept. 30, 2011. President Thein Sein's government shut down work on the dam, citing fervent public opposition to the project's impact on the environment and on local communities living along the Irrawaddy River.

The project remains highly unpopular among Kachin state's predominantly Christian population. The ambassador's visit brought some of them out to protest on the streets of Myitkyina, the Kachin state capital on June 4.

"This demonstration has given a signal to China that not only the Kachin community but also people across the country are still against the Myitsone Dam," said Steven Tsa Ji, general secretary of the Kachin Development Networking Group. 

"Chinese-invested projects cause environmental degradation and negatively impact human lives in the state," he claimed.

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Tsa Ji said that Chinese-investment projects were contracted with the previous military-backed government, which neglected the concerns of local people. They lack transparency and accountability, he said.

 

New government

The Myitsone Dam project is a major test for the new civilian-led government in its ability to balance its relationship with China versus local concerns.

Aung San Suu Kyi reportedly said during a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in April that she had not read the project's contractual agreements so she was unable to say anything definitely at that time.

China has a significant economic and strategic interest in the region and among the multitude of Chinese development projects are several controversial hydroelectric dams scattered throughout Kachin state.

Generally, these projects are large-scale energy endeavors funded by Chinese state-owned corporations such as China Power Investment Corporation and the China Datang Group. Most of the profits and electricity produced through these projects go back to China, analysts say.

China also has laid two massive pipelines to transport crude oil and natural gas via Myanmar's port city of Kyaukphyu in Rakhine state to China's Yunnan province.

There have also been claims that land was confiscated for a controversial mine project in central Myanmar that is operated by a Chinese mining company and Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd., a Myanmar army-owned conglomerate.

 

Not benefitting local communities

Yan Myo Thein, a Yangon-based political analyst, doesn't believe the new government will allow construction of Myitsone Dam to resume because of the opposition from people across Myanmar.

"The government really needs to review all the development projects across the country including Kachin state and suspend or completely halt controversial projects which do not benefit local communities," Yan Myo Thein told ucanews.com.

Tu Ja, chairman of the Kachin State Democracy Party, who met with the Chinese ambassador on June 4, said he explained to the diplomat the Kachin community's opposition to the projects.

Tu Ja said that China understood the power of the public outcry over Myitsone Dam.

"So they have changed their approach by meeting with political parties and religious leaders instead of just working through the government," Tu Ja said.

Tu Ja said he hopes that Myanmar's new civilian-led government will not agree to resume the dam project.

"But the government would need to solve issues such as compensation for the contracts which were signed by the previous military government," said the Catholic politician.

Dashi La Seng, a regional lawmaker for the National League for Democracy in Hpakant Township, said there was a lack of clarity and transparency in the contracts drawn up by the former military government and Chinese corporations.

"China-backed projects have brought disadvantages rather than advantages to the local community in Kachin state," La Seng told ucanews.com.

"Extraction of natural resources has only benefitted China," he said. "But people have lost their lives and the local community has been impacted by environmental degradation in the name of development," he said.

"China is a neighboring country that is also a super power and we need to live together peacefully but our sovereignty should not be interfered with," he said.

Kachin state lies in the northern tip of Myanmar where it borders China. It has suffered civil conflict, on and off, for decades. In recent years, more than 100,000 people have been displaced and still remain in internal displacement camps since fighting restarted in 2011.

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