Backing Naypyidaw Should It Respond to Public Interest

President Thein Sein and his senior colleagues took a significant decision on Sept. 30 to halt the US$3.6 billion Chinese-run project to dam the Irrawaddy River at the confluence of Maykha and Malikka rivers, risking Beijing’s anger. The official reasons for the Myitsone Dam u-turn included long-term ecological concerns, damage to local private (i.e., cronies’) interest, adverse impact on the livelihoods of hundreds of communities and popular opposition across the political, ethnic and class divide.

This is the decision that enjoys solid public backing at home and qualified praise by international critics abroad. The government will pass a real litmus test when it made the irreversible decision to cancel – not just suspend – the bad idea of damming the Irrawaddy at its origin.

I count myself among those critics who would like to keep an open mind about Naypyidaw’s deeds.

In a deeply polarized society, the Myitsone dam construction has created a common ground for the government, the mainstream public, the dissidents, local private interests, and the Kachin communities which have suffered direct and immediate consequences of this mega-development project.

In his Financial Times essay of June 21 entitled “It is time to fine-tune sanctions on Burma,” Germany’s Federal Commission for Human Rights Policy Markus Loening characterized our country as a “de facto province of China.” Likewise, ex-Major Aung Lynn Htut, former counterintelligence officer and Acting Chief of Mission at the Burmese Embassy in Washington, labeled Burma as “a semi-colony” of China.

And local people would certainly agree with these characterizations of their country.

Because of this lop-sided Sino-Burmese relationship, as well as the demographic and commercial penetration of their country—especially in Upper Burma—the overwhelming majority of the domestic public have come to greatly resent what they perceive and experience as Beijing’s “resource and access colonialism.” This opposing publiceven includes local Burmese-born Chinese and Sino-Burmese for whom Burma is the only home they have ever known.

Naypyidaw is now in a position to build on the new found popular support for its decision and expand the emerging common ground.

There should be a new thinking in Naypyidaw. The current government should realize that a strong government that needs not fear external threats and pressure is, above all, the government that enjoys popular backing at home.

President and his colleagues should now capitalize on this unexpected popular backing in various areas of public concerns such as the need to cease all hostilities towards armed ethnic organizations, the plight of 2,000 dissidents behind bars and numerous ecologically and socially damaging mega-development projects.

In all these areas, they should make an unequivocal break with its past mindset which disregarded any valid and legitimate popular opposition towards certain governmental actions and policies.

The governmental leaders are, in fact, presented with perhaps their best opportunity to kill a few birds with a single stone, if they are to claw Burma back from the predatory vice of Beijing’s neighborhood colonialism. They can potentially repair the tarnished image of the military, build a more balanced foreign policy, and kick-start the long overdue process of national dialogue and healing.

For starters, President Thein Sein and his colleagues should launch a national multi-dimensional review process of all existing commercial contracts—including dam constructions, special economic zone building or other economic infrastructural mega-projects—which were signed by the previous military government.

In suspending the dam project Naypyidaw has cited ecological damage, livelihood damage, popular opposition and the future of local civilizations as reasons. It can also use these as legitimate, popular rationales for launching a national multi-dimensional review process of all existing commercial contracts.

Protecting the Irrawaddy River is protecting Burma's civilization—not just the country’s dominant Buddhist communities and their livelihoods, but also the spiritual identities of non-Buddhist ethnic communities such as Jeng-hpaw, Lisu, Ahka and so on.

With the exceptions of Pegu, Mrauk-U and Taunggoo, virtually all of Burma’s civilizations have sprung out on the banks of the Irrawaddy, from the very first seat of Bama feudal power at Maimaw in the 9th century AD and the majestic Pagan (11th-13th century AD) to Amarapura and Mandalay of the late 19th century.

A simple cost-benefit analysis will show that the loss of direct foreign investment of $3.6 billion pales in comparison to the risks this Chinese project to dam Burma's bloodline poses to local civilizations and their natural habitat.

Needless to say, there will be short-term damage to Sino-Burmese bilateral relations. But these commercial, demographic, geo-strategic and international relations are so skewered in favor of China’s national and provincial interests anyway, why should we the Burmese public —not just the ruling government in Naypyidaw—be too concerned about incurring Beijing’s wrath?

As Naypyidaw repairs and revives the country’s strained relations with the entire western world Burma’s bargaining power with neighborhood bully such as China will only increase. The governmental deed of halting extremely unpopular project such as the Myitsone dam will go a long way in shoring up both domestic and international support for Naypyidaw.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s reactive statement which calls for Naypyidaw to “protect Chinese enterprises' legal and legitimate rights,” is typical of its own callous promotion of commercial and strategic interests at the expense of its Asian neighbors, as well as communities across Africa and Latin America.

But Beijing is not alone in acting in ways that do not befit a “friendly neighbor.” Former Thai PM Abbisit Vejjajiva is on record as saying that the Tavoy Special Economic Zone project, by Bangkok-based Italia-Thai Company, must house petroleum processing projects in a southern strip of Burma because those projects are “unsuitable on Thai soil.” The implication, of course, is that Thailand’s public health concerns arising out of these projects do not apply to the millions of Burmese, Tavoyans, Karens and so on.

Already, international governments have welcomed Naypyidaw doing the right thing out of its consideration for public welfare. If the generals and ex-generals continue to tread this path they will regain the trust of the domestic public and restore amicable and beneficial relations globally.

Finally, so much ink has been spilled on the re-appearance of photos of late Bogyoke (General) Aung San in Thein Sein’s presidential office. While such a symbolic gesture of governmental concessions to popular aspirations is welcome, what will re-win the hearts and minds of the multi-ethnic public, if that is what the government in Naypyidaw really wants, is to actively revive the “big tent” vision of the slain founder of modern Burma.

Aside from the impersonal forces and structural factors such as a considerably weakened and impoverished Britain, it was U Aung San’s national vision of ethnic equality and political autonomy which actually persuaded doubters among non-Bama communities to join hands with Dry Zone Bama in building the Union of Burma as a voluntary union of mutually respectful ethnic communities.

Additionally, U Aung San wildly excited the post-World War II constituencies in so-called proper Burma with his democratic secularism which would avoid the excesses of both Leftist and Rightist ideologies.

Unfortunately, since his tragic assassination in July 1947, successive civilian and military governments have moved away from Aung San’s worthy national vision without which neither national prosperity nor peace and harmony are conceivable.

It is nice to see U Aung San’s picture on a presidential wall. But what would be far more consequential for the development of peace, harmony, and reconciliation in Burma, is for Naypyidaw to revive and actively pursue his “big tent” national vision. No amount of the now much-touted technocratic expertise in Rangoon, parliamentary proceedings in Naypyidaw, or well-publicized meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi can serve as the substitute for the only workable national vision developed bythe late U Aung San.

Naypyidaw’s decision to halt the Chinese Myitssone Dam project on the country’s lifeblood of the Irrawaddy River is something modern Burma’s founding father himself would have approved. It has certainly injected the desperately needed sense of popular hope and optimism among the public at home and exiles abroad.

The Myitsone project has presented the whole of Burma with something to unite everyone who wants good things for the country and her peoples. Naypyidaw’s generals and ex-generals should seize the day. They should not miss the opportunity to initiate the country’s reconstruction and reconciliation, repair the military’s tarnished reputation, and enshrine Bogyoke Aung San’s vision as their new road map for peace and prosperity.

Dr Zarni ( is Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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