Myanmar’s State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi returned this week from a visit to China with a grant of 1 billion yuan (U.S. $148 million) for development projects, while her spokesman said a controversial Chinese dam project on the Irrawaddy River was not on the agenda.
The grant, which was agreed when she attended the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation last week in Beijing, would be used for projects to improve people’s livelihoods, studies for major projects and humanitarian assistance for people displaced by civil war in northern Myanmar, Myanmar's Foreign Ministry said.
The two countries signed Agreement on Economic and Technical Cooperation; a Memorandum of Understanding on the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) Cooperation Plan; and a MoU on a Five-year Development Program for Economic and Trade Cooperation, the ministry said.
Myanmar media quoted Aung San Suu Kyi as saying “BRI projects selected in line with Myanmar’s national plan and priorities will contribute to its endeavors for the improvement of much needed infrastructure that will not merely enhance domestic connectivity but also improve cross-border connectivity.”
BRI stands for the Belt and Road Initiative, also known as the One Belt, One Road Initiative, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature infrastructure project. The a trillion- dollar development program aims to link China with dozens of countries in Asia, Europe, and Africa.
Zaw Htay, spokesman for the state counselor’s office, said there was no discussion during Aung San Suu Kyi’s six-day stay in China of the controversial Myitsone Dam project.
Construction of the Chinese-backed U.S. $3.6 billion hydropower project on the Irrawaddy River in Kachin state, begun in 2009, has stalled since 2011 because of concerns over potential flooding and other environmental impacts and anger that 90 percent of its electricity would be exported to China.
Suspension of the project has dismayed China, which has been pushing Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government to allow the hydropower project to resume, arguing that Chinese companies have already invested heavily in it.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been tight-lipped on the fate of the project, but said in mid-March that it is important for her government to uphold investment projects approved by previous administrations or risk being perceived by investors as unreliable. Others have raised concerns that Myanmar would have to pay large compensation to China if the project is scrapped.
Religious groups across Myanmar, as well as residents of Kachin state, where the dam project is located, issued demands and staged protests ahead of Aung San Suu Kyi’s China trip, calling for the dam to be scrapped outright.
Resolving the Rakhine issue
Political observers in Myanmar said they expect that China, eager to push through projects with Myanmar, will take a keen interest in resolving ethnic conflicts in border regions, including Rakhine state, where the central government is in conflict with both Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhines.
“I think they are going to push the matter of peace and cease-fire on one hand, and on the other hand they are going to work on trade routes,” said Maung Maung Soe, a writer and observer of military and political affairs.
“There are six arms-bearing groups along the [routes], and then there are petroleum and gas pipelines and a commercial road that [combined] bring in about U.S. $5 billion a year when open,” he said.
“In the long run, if there is no peace, I think we will have to be talking the whole time about solving these problems,” said the analyst.
One analyst expressed concern that too close of a Chinese embrace of Myanmar would lead to excessive Beijing influence in local politics, as it has in Cambodia.
“China is trying to join with all of the 10 ASEAN countries to develop a big market. Among these 10 countries, this plan hinges mostly on Cambodia and Myanmar,” said Hla Kyaw Zaw, an observer of Chinese affairs.
“[At the forum] Hun Sen was on Xi Jinping’s left, and on the right was Aung San Suu Kyi,” he noted, referring to Cambodia’s strongman, who has ruled his country for 33 years and has relied on Beijing for financial support as his autocratic rule has alienated Western partners.
“China has been helping Hun Sen all along to win elections in Cambodia, and it seems it is likely that it will help Aung San Suu Kyi in the same way,” he said.
Reported by Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Than Than Win. Written in English by Eugene Whong.