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China at odds with Myanmar

China at odds with Myanmar
Myanmar’s transition from military rule to a full-fledged democracy has hit a few bumps on the road. The undisputed leader of the country, Aung San Suu Kyi, the chairman of Myanmar’s National Democratic League, swept the polls in the general elections six months ago. 

But a provision deliberately inserted in the army-drafted constitution prevents her from becoming the president of the country. Amending the constitution will take some time. But she is already the de facto Head of State in her capacity as State Counsellor – a post specially created for the undisputed leader. She also holds the portfolios of foreign affairs, education, power and energy and the president’s office. The President, Htin Kyaw is one of her most trusted colleagues.

When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met her in capital Naypyidaw last month, he was virtually meeting the Head of State. They had a lot to discuss. China is not happy with the end of military rule and Suu Kyi’s policy of opening up the nascent democracy to the outside world. The Chinese could not conceal their unhappiness. In fact, strains started developing between the two countries towards the end of military rule in Myanmar. 

The main disagreement is over a number of Chinese projects that have been opposed by the people of Myanmar. Besides a negative impact on the environment, these projects would have displaced of a large number of people. The opposition is so strong and fierce that even the military junta had to bow down to public sentiment and cancel many of these projects. For India, these projects could have posed significant concerns.

The first to be cancelled in 2011 was the $20 billion high-speed railway line that would have connected China’s Yunnan Province to the Bay of Bengal. If the project had taken off, it would have given China an opening in the Bay of Bengal just as the Gwadar port in Pakistan in the Arabian Sea. It would have been a development of concern to India.  It was abandoned because of people’s determined opposition to the destruction of forests over large areas besides the displacement of many locals.

The second kept on hold by the then Myanmar president U Thein Sein, is the Myitsone Dam project which was to be built by the Chinese Power Investment Company for the generation of 6000 MW of power, primarily for transmission to Yunnan Province. The Chinese company claims it has already spent over $800 million on the project. The entire project includes construction of one dam at Myisone and six more in contiguous places. Nearly 18,000 people would have been evicted and resettled elsewhere.

The Chinese have not reconciled to the abandonment of these projects and are lobbying hard with the government of Suu Kyi to give the green signal. They are keen on going ahead, without caring for the people’s sentiments and opposition.

The third irritant in the Sino-Myanmar relationship is due to ethnic conflicts in northern Myanmar that often spill over to the adjoining Yunnan Province of China. People chased by the Myanmar army flee across the border and take shelter in Yunnan province. Once Myanmar air force planes, while chasing the rebels, had inadvertently dropped a bomb on Chinese territory drawing strong and angry protests from Beijing. This was during military rule. Suu Kyi is keen on improving relations with China while protecting the interests of her people.

As far as India is concerned, Myanmar occupies a central place in New Delhi’s Look  East policy. The 3,200 km long Asian Trilateral Highway, from Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot district in Thailand, when completed, will open up the ASEAN region for India. Similarly, the 900 km long Multimodal Transit Transport System connecting Calcutta Port to the Sittwe Port in Myanmar, passing through Mizoram, is another big project which is coming up. The route will be partly riverine and partly land.

Now that China is strengthening its military footprint on India’s border, Myanmar and Vietnam are the two neighbours India has started to cultivate ties with.  During the junta rule, India had cooled off to Myanmar. That was first changed by former Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao. Now with Suu Kyi at the helm, India wants to walk the extra mile to win the trust of Myanmar as an all-weather friend. Suu Kyi still fondly remembers her student days at the Lady Sri Ram College in Delhi.

She has many problems on hand. One is the amending of the constitution drawn up by the army to make it a truly democratic one. Another is the resolution of ethnic rebellions involving the Karens, Kachins, Shans, and Mons. These conflicts have bedevilled internal peace and harmony in Myanmar for decades. Suu Kyi wants now to hold out the proverbial olive branch and persuade the tribes to lay down arms and usher in permanent peace.

Then there is the immense challenge of industrializing the country. Though Myanmar is endowed with rich mineral resources, industry accounts for only 20.3 percent of its GDP. Agriculture accounts for 38 percent and services for 41.7 percent. One-third of the people has no access to electricity. India seeks to play a positive role in Myanmar’s development.

 IPA
(The views expressed are strictly personal)
Barun Das Gupta

Barun Das Gupta

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