AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE
BANGKOK: Myanmar’s suspension of a controversial mega-dam project is the latest glimmer of change from a regime reaching out to the West at the expense of ties with traditional ally China, experts say.
The surprise decision to halt construction of the Chinese-backed hydropower project for several years at least — risking the anger of Beijing — was a rare concession to public opinion in the authoritarian nation.
It was also the latest conciliatory gesture by the new nominally civilian government towards its critics, including Western nations who impose sanctions on the regime, the suppressed pro-democracy movement and armed ethnic rebels.
“In recent years, Burma has been seen as a client state of China,” said Gareth Price, senior research fellow at the Chatham House think-tank in London, using the country’s former name.
“Maybe they feel after this political process that they have gone through that there’s a need to distance themselves from China,” he added. “So they think they are going to get some new friends and sanctions will be lifted.”
In March Myanmar’s junta announced it was disbanding following the first election in two decades, held in November, which handed power to a new government headed by President Thein Sein, a former general and junta premier.
Initially derided by critics as a frontman for the military, Thein Sein has surprised many by promising a range of political and economic reforms, although sceptics argue nothing has yet been done that could not be easily reversed.
In announcing the suspension of the $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam hydropower project in northern Kachin state in late September in the capital Naypyidaw, Thein Sein said the government had a duty to “respect the will of the people”.
The project has long been opposed by residents in the area, where fighting has flared up recently between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), one of several armed ethnic militias around the country.
Resistance to the dam had also been growing among pro-democracy and environmental activists in the main city of Yangon, with small protests testing the new government’s proclaimed tolerance of freedom of expression.
The United States praised the suspension, describing it as a “significant and positive step” that suggested the leadership was listening to its people.
President Barack Obama’s administration, which has pursued both diplomatic engagement and continued sanctions against Myanmar, has welcomed signs of political change in the Southeast Asian nation.
China’s official Xinhua news agency quoted Lu Qizhou, president of China Power Investment Corp, the energy giant behind the dam project, as saying he was “totally astonished” by the move, which he learned of through media reports.