By Ding Gang Source: Global Times Published: 2017-4-5
The Myitsone Dam in Myanmar has once again made headlines in Western media outlets, but in a more nuanced context than reports of the past.
The New York Times carried a piece on Friday entitled "A Chinese-Backed Dam Project Leaves Myanmar in a Bind," which mixes speculations on whether the suspended project will be resumed with issues of democracy.
On September 30, 2011, then Myanmar president U Thein Sein made a startling policy reversal by announcing all construction on the dam would be stopped for the rest of his tenure. The $3.6-billion, 6,000-megawatt hydroelectric project was financed by a Chinese enterprise.
The article in the New York Times says "The decision" is "widely seen as a victory for the forces of democracy." Myanmar mainly claims the dam will damage the environment and arouse public concerns about ecology.
However, what actually happened was that the dam had fallen prey to the escalating confrontation and contention between local interest groups in the northern state of Kachin and the Myanmar government.
Since the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi gained power, the dam controversy has gradually been tied to democracy due to the manipulation of Western public opinions. It has now become a symbol for whether the Myanmar government will hold fast to democratic principles.
Last year, the Myanmar government established an audit committee on the Irrawaddy-Myitsone river basin power stations, aimed at effectively examining hydroelectric power plants, including the Myitsone Dam project.
At that time, some people saw the halt of the project as a victory of democracy because it was funded by China and approved by then military government and that its resumption would be anti-democracy.
In the public opinion bloated by Western media, the international community is slowly forgetting the significance of the project to Myanmar people`s well-being and the actual benefits it will bring to them.
According to the original contract, the Chinese side will not only give hundreds of millions of dollars to Myanmar every year but also provide part of the generated electricity to the country after the dam is completed. The project is, in reality, a timely aid to Myanmar, which is blighted by a prolonged, severe lack of electricity. Moreover, the project will likely become a vital foundation of the development in north Myanmar.
The so-called controversy encompassing democracy, as matter of fact, is an issue of development rather than politics. North Myanmar boasts abundant water, making hydroelectric generation the most feasible way to provide power to local residents.
In recent years, the World Bank has changed its views that hydroelectric generation would undermine environment protection and restarted some large-scale hydropower projects in hope to ramp up the economic development in impoverished countries, while reducing carbon emissions.
Democracy is important to Myanmar. It is used to fuel economic growth, not to halt it. Democracy is of no use if it does not boost development. When democracy becomes a pretense, populism will gain ground.
Many developing countries have seen their development encumbered by so-called democracy to various degrees. Some of them have even gone backward. Myanmar is facing the same challenge. From the perspective of development, the Myitsone Dam project should be an issue of how to better adapt to Myanmar`s development. In that case, there should be more room for communication on both sides.
For instance, Beijing and Nay Pyi Taw can discuss how much of the generated power should be distributed to Myanmar, and whether to build power transmission networks to facilitate the electricity transference to major cities.
They may also talk about how Chinese firms can provide more development opportunities for local people, such as the establishment of more schools and training of technical workers. The Chinese side could even consider transferring some training fees into the special fund to help with Myanmar`s national reconciliation in order to support its government`s peace talks with armed ethnic groups.
Now that the Myitsone project has become prominent in the Western media, China and Myanmar should no longer keep a low profile. Media outlets and research institutions on both sides should hold symposiums of various kinds to publicly discuss Myanmar`s power demand and construction of hydroelectric stations as well as come up with effective ways to deal with the current bind.
The author is a senior fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.