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China wants pound of flesh for Myanmar’s diplomatic shield

While Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has a strained relationship with the west over its handling of the Rohingya crisis, China has shielded the country from international pressure and punitive action from the United Nations Security Council.
However, in exchange for its diplomatic protection, Beijing is now pressing Myanmar to revive the Myitsone Dam project, which has been suspended for seven years.
Work on the US$3.6 billion ($28.2 billion) project in Kachin State started in 2008 but the military-backed government of then-president, Thein Sein, suspended construction in September 2011 following protests and widespread environmental concerns. 
The issue became a major thorn in relations between the countries as China agitated to resume work.
The hydroelectric dam would be the 15th largest in the world. The 6,000 megawatts of electricity it would produce is more than Myanmar’s entire power grid produces at present. However, most of the power would be used by China despite Myanmar being in need of it.
Renewed pressure came when Chinese ambassador, Hong Liang, visited Kachin in December and met with political parties and social organisations.
Gumgrawng Awng Hkam, president of the Kachin Democratic Party, said Hong explained that more Chinese investments cannot be made due to the suspension of the dam project.
Hong told the politicians that state counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, had changed her mind and wants to undertake development projects.
Awng Hkam, a former development worker, said Hong asked: “Can you write a letter to support the Myitsone Dam project and send it to the union government?”
He said that “During the meeting, he (Hong) talked as he wished and I felt his messages were like a threat or warning rather than discussion.” 
Two weeks after the meeting, the Chinese embassy in Yangon released a statement saying that the local Kachin community were not against the project but some outside individuals and social organisations opposed it.
Three Kachin political parties quickly rebutted the Chinese claim.
Awng Hkam said, “We didn’t say we support the Myitsone Dam. The Chinese embassy’s statement is misleading and has prompted concerns among local people.” He continued, “We have totally opposed the dam project since the start and we don’t support restarting it.”
Steven Tsa Ji, general secretary of Kachin Development Networking Group, said Chinese officials have been courting people in Kachin every year but the recent meeting signalled more pressure.
He said China had used the tactic to gain support from local people, especially the Kachin community, while Suu Kyi’s government remains silent.
“The government elected by the people needs to have courage and take a firm stand over the project. It is the right time to tell the public about the government’s decision,” Tsa Ji said.
“We will continue to fight development projects that harm the environment, are socially destructive and do not benefit the local community.”
Bertil Lintner, a Swedish observer of Myanmese affairs, said it would be political suicide for any person or party in Myanmar to give Myitsone Dam the green light. 
“No one in Myanmar wants it, and it’s not only a Kachin issue— t concerns the entire population of the country,” he said.
Awng Hkam said the Chinese ambassador told them not to contact western countries and warned that “they would face difficult consequences.”
In 2016, Hong Liang urged his counterpart from the United States (US) in not to travel to Kachin State or certain parts of Shan State because Washington should respect China’s interests, according to January 16 Asia Times report.
The US-based Institute for Peace said in a report in September 2018 that “China believes it deserves to have predominant presence and influence in these areas, if not elsewhere in Myanmar, regardless of the wishes or interests of Myanmar, let alone the interests of other countries.”
Asia Times reported that China has managed to outmaneuver other foreign interlocutors and emerge as the main broker in Myanmar’s stuttering peace process, which is a major reason why there is opposition to western diplomats visiting Myanmar’s war-torn northern border with China. 
Hong also told Kachin politicians that China would help to end fighting in Myanmar’s north and facilitate the return of internally displaced Kachin people.
Awng Hkam said, “We want the United Nations and the international community, including the US and European Union, to become involved in Myanmar’s peace process as we doubt China’s dream of peace.”
Myanmar’s military announced a partial ceasefire in northern areas from 21 December 2018 to April 30 in a move that observers see as the result of Chinese pressure.
“But China is not interested in peace the way people in Myanmar see it—that is, a political solution to decades of ethnic wars. China doesn’t want war either; it wants stability, which for the time being means a status quo it can use to achieve its geo-strategic goals,” Lintner said.
He said that being the main mediator in talks between the government, military and armed ethnic groups serves this purpose and so does providing the United Wa State Army with modern, sophisticated weaponry.
The Chinese government is pushing Myanmar’s government, military and armed groups along its border to end fighting as stability allows for its investments to proceed, including strategic infrastructure projects under its Belt and Road initiative and the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor.
Lintner said Myanmar opened up to the west in 2011 mainly because of the ruling military’s desire to lessen dependence on China, but the Rohingya crisis has led to the west distancing itself from Myanmar and China re-emerging as the country’s main ally.
The new shift could have unpredictable consequences for Myanmar’s political future, he said. UCAN

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