The government has suspended work on the controversial Myitsone dam as a result of widespread public protest over its likely environmental and social impact,
reports the Myanmar Times.
China News Service (中国新闻网) reported on Sunday (October 2, 2011, 00:41 GMT) that
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei (洪磊) told a press conference today that the Myitsone electric plant project is a joint Sino-Chinese project which went through scientific demonstration and strict examination. The matters concerned should be properly handled through friendly consultations between the two sides.
Q: According to reports, Myanmar’s parliament announced on September 30 that during president Thein Sein’s tenure, the Sino-Myanmarnese cooperative Myitsone electric plant project will remain shelved. What is the Chinese side’s comment on this?
A: The Chinese government has always supported Chinese companies in developing cooperation with companies abroad, based on the principles of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit, and demanded that Chinese companies should perform in strict accordance with those countries’ law and regulations, to fulfill their responsibilities and obligations, and urges governments in pertaining countries to guarantee the Chinese companies’ legal legitimate rights and interests. The Myitsone power plant is a project jointly invested by China and Myanmar, and went through the scientific demonstration and strict examination of both sides. The matters concerned should be properly handled through friendly consultations between the two sides.
Also on Sunday (Saturday, 18:07 GMT), People’s Daily‘s Bangkok correspondent Ji Peiyuan (暨佩娟) quoted Myanmar media:
According to Myanmar media reports, Burmese parliament announced on September 30 that during president Thein Sein’s tenure, the Sino-Myanmarnese cooperative Myitsone electric plant project will remain shelved. Thein Sein said: “Myanmar’s government is elected by the people, therefore, we have to pay attention to the will of the people. We are obliged to focus on settling the people’s worries and misgivings.”
Thein Sein said that the Myitsone electric plant project could harm [or destroy, 破坏] the natural landscape, the livelihoods of the local people, the private capital in the cultivation of rubber plantations and crops, and collapsing dams, caused by climate change, could also damage the livelihoods of the people near the Myitsone plant, and further down the river. He also said that the Myanmar government would consult with the Chinese government to avoid harming Sino-Myanmar bilateral relations and friendship.
Myanmar Myitsone hydropower plant is worth 3.6 billion US dollars, and is about 200 kilometers away from Tengchong County in Yunnan Province. and is a major hydropower by the China Power Investment Corporation, in the region of Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River. It’s located in the Kachin mountainous region and to be developed at the 干流河段 section of the Irrawaddy River, with a capacity of six million kilowatts.
The rest of People’s Daily’s report reflects the statement made by Chinese foreign ministry Hong Lei (see this post’s initial paras).
The BBC reported that a letter by president Thein Sein had been read out in parliament, announcing the decision to suspend the project. The project had fuelled fighting between the army and ethnic Kachin rebels. The BBC quotes its South East Asia correspondent Rachel Harvey as saying that the decision appears to be further evidence of the new leadership’s desire to seek legitimacy by being more open to public opinion.
Both continuing the project in the long run (completion was originally scheduled for 2019), and its abandonment, would pose many problems. Continuation would reportedly have a negative impact on biodiversity, as frequently reflected by organizations like the Burma Rivers Network, it may come with side effects as many other mega dams from the Aswan Dam in Egypt to the Three-Gorges dam in China have, and rebel movements in the region could make the Myitsone project vulnerable to sabotage. Besides the mythological weight the river carries, forced relocations, and the loss of means of livelihood also seem to have driven opposition.
But Mynamar may have good reasons to keep consultations with Beijing as friendly as possible. Even if Yangon (or Naypyidaw) flatly refused to pay damages (if legally obliged to do so), business with its powerful neighbor would suffer. China sees itself a s a victim of trade protectionism, and this case, if it becomes a high-profile bone of contention, would add to that.
On the other hand, the further process may also make it clear to Beijing that mere deals with third-world countries’ regimes may not be sustainable. If China’s rulers understand that is a different question. Protectionism and resource nationalism had been on the rise and hampered Chinese business, official Xinhua news agency reported in September, citing an Ernest & Young report. Obviously, China was a “victim” of trade protectionism (贸易保护主义最大受害者).
There is grumbling among China’s academia, too. On the tenth anniversary of China’s accession to the WTO, People’s University (aka Renmin University) professor Gu Genliang (贾根良) questioned China’s foreign trade approach of importing high-end products and exporting low-end products (进口高端产品并出口低端产品).
By exporting hydropower to China, Myanmar would follow a path similar to the one Gu Genliang deems harmful. China, Gu Genliang (and many other Chinese people, academics or not) feel that they are being exploited, especially by America, of course.
[Update, April 11, 2012: the linked website, Utopia, is currently offline. Apparently, Wu Genliang’s article can also be found here.]
Gu also fears foreign blackmail:
We are mired in heavy dependence on foreign resources and on on our own cheap exports. Large-scale low-end exports consume a lot of energy and natural resources, which led to our country’s dependence on foreign energy and resources which not only made the prices for these sources explode, which transferred the fruits of our people’s hard work into the hands of energy-exporting countries, but also has the potential of making us suffer from foreign countries’ embargos, thus carrying a huge security risk. At the same time, while our country is so reliant on foreign resources, it is ridiculous that we are exporting large quantities of rare earths and minerals coal, etc. at low prices.
The WTO ruled in July that Chinese export restrictions on certain raw minerals violated global rules
Gu spells out the conditions under which China’s WTO membership could still be useful – or those under which it should consider leaving the organization.
Myanmar is still a long way from even joining.
But maybe, at least, it will stop exploiting China’s dependence on energy, and pull the plug on the Myitsone project for good.
Updates / Related
» Aung San Suu Kyi Cautious, BBC, Oct 3, 2011