My recent trip to Myanmar made a strong impression on me. Myanmese people excessively guard against China and always feel they are taken advantage by their giant neighbor. Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the National League for Democracy (NLD), enjoys an almost divine status among the public. It may be up to Suu Kyi to revise the exaggerated vigilance against China by Myanmese people and address problems arising in China-Myanmar cooperation in these years.
In Myanmar, . Our extensive talks with Myanmese government officials, businessmen, media professionals and people in other professions showed that they tend to think the Chinese often conduct illegal logging in Myanmar and have been arrogant and disrespectful of Myanmese culture since getting rich.
Besides, they believed that China won all of its projects in Myanmar under the military dictatorship, and that China’s assistance doesn’t actually benefit Myanmese people. Supporters of the NLD believe that Myanmar’s junta could have long collapsed if it were not bolstered by China.
Obviously many Myanmese have grown suspicious of China, hence they object to building projects like the Myitsone Dam, the Letpadaung Copper Mine, the railway connecting China and Myanmar and oil and gas pipelines. They oppose all these projects for the very reason that they feel Myanmar has suffered or will suffer losses if these schemes continue.
The Chinese diplomats and businesses in Myanmar we met feel underappreciated. They have to contact with the Myanmese government and show that these projects are mutually beneficial and even surrender part of the profits. In this case the Chinese side has nothing to hide from the public. China’s measures that have heavily benefited Myanmese people are seldom reported and China always ends up in the dock. In explaining the phenomenon, the West and Japan were mentioned by many on the Chinese side. China is not good at reaching out to Myanmese people and in this respect lags behind Japan in particular.
Different perceptions between China and Myanmar have apparently caused consequences. In 2011 when then Myanmese president U TheinSein suddenly ordered a halt of the Myitsone Dam construction, it was widely speculated that he made the decision to cater to public opinion. And in 2012, the Letpadaung Copper Mine was suspended due to protests in Myanmar.
The situation benefited no one. While the Chinese side directly suffered huge losses, the Myanmese side had to bear larger potential ones and lost its credit in China. As a result, China’s investment in Myanmar plunged from about $8 billion in 2010 to about $20 million in 2013. Compared with its impact on Myanmar, the dramatic fall could have little influence on China’s sizable economy.
The conspiracy theories about China that have been widely circulated among Myanmese, should be self-evidently false for Suu Kyi given her political experiences and wisdom. After taking power, her top priority should be stabilizing and developing Myanmar, which is much anticipated by China. Myanmese people have high expectation for the NLD and Myanmar has to make changes in a short period.
China is well-positioned to be Myanmar’s partner in every respect and the two sides boast large room for win-win cooperation. Currently the main obstacle to bilateral relations is the misunderstandings and misperceptions of Myanmese society about China, and this can and should be cleared away by SuuKyi using her authority for the sake of Myanmar’s national interests.
The Myitsone Dam project is a barometer of Sino-Myanmese relations. The new Myanmese government can start by reassessing the project and immediately restart it as long as the standards are met. This will set an example for and significantly promote China-Myanmar cooperation.
The Myitsone Dam issue also came up in our talks with the NLD Central Executive Committee and one of its members said that it couldn’t be ruled out that the project would be restarted. Hopefully this can come true.
The author is deputy editor-in-chief of the Chinese edition of the Global Times.