Myitsone dam site near Myitkyina, Kachin State. Source: Wikimedia
Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi is in China for presumably her most challenging diplomatic expedition so far, with the fate of a suspended dam project, backed by Beijing but unpopular at home, on the agenda.
Finding a solution to the US$3.6 billion Myitsone dam project in Kachin State is a challenge for Suu Kyi who needs China to exert pressure on ethnic-minority rebel armies operating along the Chinese border.
China has firm contacts with powerful rebel armies, some of which have ethnic Chinese leaders, so China’s influence is vital as Suu Kyi tries to convene an unwieldy peace conference in Panglong on August 31.
She is trying to ensure the participation of most of Myanmar’s 21-odd rebel armies and numerous political parties in the hope they will all agree to establish a federal state and a new constitution.
The situation is complicated by the fact that she does not control her own army, that many of armed groups are engaged in bitter turf wars with each other, the porous borders and the crushing level of drug addiction in Myanmar’s periphery.
“If the Chinese leaders bring up a specific issue like the controversial Myitsone mega-dam project, of course we’ll explain to them what we’ve been doing,” said foreign ministry permanent secretary Aung Lynn.
Ex-president Thein Sein angered China and surprised most observers in 2011 when he suspended work on the hydropower project, at a confluence on the Ayeyawady, after it drew large environmental protests.
About 90 per cent of the dam’s power would have gone to China while Myanmar flounders to meet growing demand in a country where large rural areas have no access to electricity.
Suu Kyi also called for the project’s suspension at the time. China has repeatedly said it would push Nay Pyi Taw to resume the project, insisting the contract was still valid.
An official commission has begun reviewing several hydropower projects, including Myitsone, with a report due in November.
China’s state-run Global Times said the establishment of the commission was a “sign that might herald the restoration of the China-invested project”.
It noted that Suu Kyi, the de facto prime minister, was visiting China before the United States next month.
“As Myanmar’s largest neighbour, it is necessary for Suu Kyi to attach importance to China,” the paper opined.
Other Chinese projects in Myanmar have also proved controversial, including the Letpadaung copper mine, which has sparked protests leading to the death of a demonstrator, and Chinese oil and gas pipelines across the country to the Bay of Bengal.
Suu Kyi will meet Premier Li Keqiang and President Xi Jinping.