A recent statement from the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar has caused great controversy. Leaders of several political parties in the Kachin State of north Myanmar expressed strong opposition. Some observers believe that if the confrontational situation continues to expand, it is possible to reignite the wave of anti-Chinese investment that was sweeping across Myanmar a few years ago.
Hong Liang, the Chinese Ambassador to Myanmar visited Kachin State at the end of 2018. Hong met with the heads of the local five political parties and a religious organization. Topics discussed included the peace process in Myanmar, the resettlement of refugees, drug control, and the economic and trade cooperation with China.
Hong’s meeting was not well received. Gumgrawng Awng Hkam, leader of Kachin Democratic Party (KDP), and Rev. Hkalam Samson, pastor from Kachin Baptist Churches, said in an interview that the attitude of the Chinese ambassador at the meeting was somewhat arrogant. Hong warned these leaders not to establish friendship with Western diplomats and not to oppose China’s investment projects in Kachin State, including the Myitsone hydropower station that has been on hold for more than seven years.
A week before the Chinese ambassador’s visit, the US and British ambassadors also visited Kachin. They also met with leaders of local political parties and discussed the peace processes, refugee resettlement, education and medical care, and fair and free elections. Kachin’s political leaders suggested that the two ambassadors set up liaison offices in the state capital of Myitkyina to strengthen their ties.
More than 90 percent of the Kachin people believe in Christianity. Local religious groups and political parties have maintained close ties with Western churches and political circles. Gumgrawng Awng Hkam believes that the warning that the Chinese ambassador made to the Kachin people “felt like a threat.”
On January 13, the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar issued a statement. The statement said that the Myitsone hydropower project has been put on hold for seven years and is one of the difficulties that China-Myanmar cooperation faces. If this problem cannot be resolved after a long delay, it will seriously damage the confidence of Chinese entrepreneurs in investing in Myanmar. The economic and social development of Myanmar and the construction of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor require an adequate electricity supply. To this end, China and Myanmar have conducted close consultations on the Myitsone hydropower project in an effort to find a solution acceptable to both parties as soon as possible. The support of the Kachin State people will be highly valued.
The statement also said, “The people of Kachin State did not oppose the Myitsone project. It is some individuals and some foreign organizations that opposed the project.”
In response to the statement from the Chinese Embassy, on January 14, Kachin State’s three main political parties – the Kachin National Congress (KNC), the Kachin State Democratic Party (KSDP), and the Kachin Democratic Party (KDP) issued a joint statement. The statement declared that the Kachin people represented by the three political parties have the same desire, which is to completely stop the construction of the Myitsone hydropower project.
The three political parties, which all attended the meeting with Chinese Ambassador Hong in December, are applying to form a unified political party to participate in the 2020 Myanmar election.
After the publication of the joint statement, Gumgrawng Awng Hkam showed a strong attitude in the interview. “From the beginning, we have been against the project of Myitsone. Our people disagree with it and our political parties also oppose it. However, China refuses to give up and continues to work hard to advance it. They said that due to the failure of Mysone Chinese investors are hesitant to make new investments in Myanmar. I want to tell the Chinese ambassador and China again that our party and I totally disagree with this project.”
The Myitsone Hydropower Project, with a planned total investment of US$3.6 billion, was launched in 2009, but the local people and people in other parts of Myanmart quickly opposed it. Then President of Myanmar, Thein Sein, stopped the project in September 2011. After Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government took office, an investigation team was formed to investigate the feasibility, environmental impact and immigration issues of the Myitsone project. The team has completed two investigation reports so far, but the NLD government has not made the reports public.
The project’s investor, China’s State Power Investment Corporation (SPIC), has not given up the project. In September 2018, media reported that the SPIC project leader organized meetings in the villages of Kachin to promote the project to the local people. According to SPIC, due to the shelving of the project, the Myanmar government has to pay the Chinese side US$50 million in compensation every year. Once the project is completely cancelled, Myanmar is facing a payment of up to US$800 million for breaching the contract.
Sweden’s Burmese expert Bertil Lintner wrote in the Asia Times that Aung San Suu Kyi had to seek more support from China because of the pressure and sanctions imposed by the Europeans and Americans on the Rohingya refugee issue. At that point, China intensified its efforts to lobby Myanmar to restart the Myitsone hydropower station, and it asked for a high return from Myanmar. He believes: “China’s new push for the Myitsone dam represents a gamble, one that could reignite the popular anti-China movement that swept the country in 2011, and one that even Suu Kyi would be hard-pressed to stop once started.”
Source: Voice of America, January 17, 2019