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Dam Causes a Splash in Burma

Coming on the heels of the democratic thaw which promises to alter the country’s politics, Myanmar has more surprises in store this month. A detailed article by the redoubtable Andrew Higgins in the Washington Post discusses the Burmese government’s recent shift on a Chinese dam project in Burmese territory:

After five years of cozy cooperation with Burma’s ruling generals, China Power Investment Corp. got a shock in September when it sent a senior executive to Naypyidaw, this destitute Southeast Asian nation’s showcase capital, a Pharaonic sprawl of empty eight-lane highways and cavernous government buildings. […]

Two weeks later, Burma, also known as Myanmar, scrapped the cornerstone of the project. President Thein Sein, a former general who took office in March, announced that he had to “respect the people’s will” and halt the $3.6 billion dam project at Myitsone, the biggest of seven planned by China Power Investment, or CPI. […]

Amid a dramatic, though still fitful, opening in Burma after decades of harsh repression, public anger has swamped China’s hydropower plan. The deluge threatens not only hundreds of millions of dollars already spent but also China’s intimate ties to what had been a reliably authoritarian partner, its only East Asian ally other than North Korea.

This decision comes after growing criticism of the dam and other Chinese energy projects on the part of NGOs and other community groups:

In October 2009, the Kachin Development Networking Group, an opposition group, sent an open letter to CPI demanding that it halt the project “to avoid being complicit in multiple serious human rights abuses associated with the project.” CPI, according to the group, did not reply. The company declined to comment for this article.

Christian Kachins held prayer meetings, calling for divine intervention against CPI. “We prayed that God will favor the right and defeat the wrong,” said Dai Lum, secretary of the Church of Zion in Myitkyina, the regional capital.

U.S. diplomats, in a January 2010 cable released by WikiLeaks, noted with surprise the “growing strength of civil society groups.” Some of these, according to the cable, had received “small grants” from the U.S. Embassy.

While this is certainly a victory for Myanmar’s civil society groups, it also has broader implications for the relationship between the US and China. Beijing, in particular, has much to be worried about, especially as it considers the American role in the anti-dam movement.

As the article notes, many of the anti-dam groups had received aid from the U.S., while the growing influence of Christian groups and NGOs speaks to increasing American influence in the country. The government’s willingness to accede to the demands of U.S.-backed NGOs is sure to raise eyebrows in Beijing. The public humiliation and financial blow to a company closely linked to Beijing princelings stings bad enough; Beijing is certain to interpret the Burmese change of heart as the result of a devious American plot.

This is an important story, and it’s good to see such high-quality reporting on a complex Asian train of events. Higgins has done a real service by combining the Chinese, Burmese government and Burmese civil society aspects of a complex story.  His accounts of the role the Burma project has in Chinese energy policy and the connections of the Chinese company involved are first class.  I would like to see more discussion of the way that these events play into Chinese concerns about American encirclement and the exaggerated fears many in Beijing have of the influence of western-funded NGO’s, but this is strong reporting of the highest order. Americans need to understand Asia more deeply than most of us now do; reporting like this is a key.

Thanks, Mr. Higgins, and thanks Washington Post.  More, please.

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  • J R Yankovic

    Didn’t Via Meadia once write – anyhow, didn’t SOMEBODY once write somewhere – that God is the supreme economist? Two for the price of one: Simultaneous humiliation of both Burmese military government high-handedness and mainland Chinese arrogance – if that isn’t an example of the supremest Divine economy then I don’t know what is.

  • Steven Rood

    Anent my comment on the earlier Burma blog post about economic aspects, this from Ernie Bower over at CSIS:
    “IMF delegation concludes mission to Burma. Officials from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) held consultations with Burmese officials and made an initial assessment of steps needed to reform Burma’s ineffective dual monetary exchange rate system, according to a November 2 IMF press release announcing the end of the two-week mission to Burma. The IMF did not confirm whether Burma would accept necessary conditions for further IMF assistance, particularly accession to Article VIII of the IMF charter, which bans member countries from engaging in discriminatory currency practices. Knowledgeable sources confirm that Burmese officials are very interested in continuing their cooperation with the IMF and say that another IMF delegation is expected to return to Rangoon in January 2012.”

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