Burma Bamboozles China

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Burma Bamboozles China

Does Burma’s announcement that it is scrapping a controversial dam project indicate genuine change ahead?

Burma is becoming ever more baffling. Its decision to bite the usually friendly hand of Beijing by ditching plans to construct a massive dam flies in the face of everything the ruling elite had stood for in recent decades.

The Sunday Bangkok Post best summed up the prevailing mood at the weekend, writing: ‘It’s hard to tell what exactly is happening with our neighbours at the moment – and academics, journalists and professional Burma watchers seem just as bamboozled as the rest of us. Are we seeing real change under the newly “elected” civilian government, or is it the old wolf slipping seamlessly into sheep’s clothing?’

To be fair to Burma’s leadership, President Thein Sein has pushed his country in directions few would have thought possible prior to last November’s poll, which was widely condemned as a sham in the West.

Rapprochement with pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi appears to be going well since she was released from prison almost a year ago. Naypyidaw has also promised the UN General Assembly it will release more political prisoners. The United States, Britain, Australia, the European Union, the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have all indicated they will engage the civilian government in an attempt to win real reforms. Burma for its part desperately wants to hold the ASEAN chair in 2014.

Now, Thein Sein has gone much further, saying construction of a controversial hydroelectric dam has been suspended because it’s not wanted by the people. The Chinese, who were building the $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam, are upset, and Beijing has urged Burma to reconsider.

Disputes between the pair are rare. But this time, one Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman went so far as to say that relevant countries must ‘guarantee the lawful and legitimate rights and interests of Chinese companies.’

Opposition to damming the Irrawaddy River in the country’s northeast had been low key, not unusual in Burma. It was to be built by China Power Investment Corp. which would sell on the bulk of the electricity produced back home, where the motherland is still undergoing rapid industrialization.

Thousands of villagers were to be displaced in an area that’s prone to earthquakes and routine clashes between the Burmese military and Kachin rebels.

An area the size of Singapore was to be submerged. Small street protests and a letter from Suu Kyi urging the dam’s construction be suspended had been sent out, but no one really believed Thien Sein would act.

His decision is tantalizing to observers, and has had some speculating that the winds of change might really be blowing through Burma.

If Thein Sein’s announcement marks a genuine shift in policy, including toward China, then the country really could be on the right path. But it’s still very early days. Few observers would be surprised if, as The Sunday Bangkok Post noted, the recent reforms prove to be little more than a proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing.