|Beijing has already contributed $3.6bn to the construction of the Myitsone hydropower dam, a project which would displace as many as 20,000 people from their homes [EPA]
The volley of scepticism fired at the new government of Myanmar since it came to power in March has been well-founded: aside from the fact that the key cabinet positions are overwhelmingly held by pro-military men, much of the so-called reform underway in the south-east Asian country formerly known as Burma has, to date, been little more than rhetorical. The more hardline faction of the pro-democracy movement has judged much of "new" state policy as little more than window-dressing - reforms to the media, for example, despite continued jailing of journalists; olive branches to ethnic minorities while military offensives intended to assimilate or wipe them out are ratcheted up. The list continues.
But a decision by President Thein Sein on Friday to halt work on the highly lucrative, albeit hugely controversial, China-backed Myitsone Dam in the country’s north may change the picture entirely. Beijing has fronted $3.6bn for the project, and had expected to reap the 6000 MW output as it seeks to provide for the soaring energy demands of its population. Much to the chagrin of Myanma citizens, and indeed US and EU nations hungrily eyeing Myanmar’s strategically important position in Southeast Asia, China’s needs have been prioritised in Naypyidaw above all else.
Flooding the size of Singapore
Now public anger among Myanma may have finally netted a result, and struck a major nerve in Beijing. While citizens of Myanmar have learned to tread carefully around popular protest, given a bloody history of crackdowns by the army, Myitsone proved too painful for many to bear - upon completion, the dam would have been the world’s fifteenth tallest, flooding an area the size of Singapore and displacing 20,000 people from their homes.
Disquiet over the project has been simmering in the exiled community for years, but recent weeks have seen Myanma inside the country gain in confidence: high-profile writers and scientists have signalled their anger, while, last month, a lone protester was arrested in Yangon after demanding the project be stopped. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi also publicly threw her weight behind the burgeoning Save Irrawaddy campaign, aimed at blocking all hydropower projects, including Myitsone, on the crucial waterway that runs the length of Myanmar and sustains millions. Their efforts were aided by the release in July of an internal 2009 report by the China Power Investment (CPI) Corporation, the company behind the dam, concluding that the project’s size was unnecessary and called for it to be terminated.
In his letter to parliament on September 30, the president said the decision pivoted on a need to “respect the will of the people”. Such sentiments have been uttered for decades, but were rightly dismissed as double-speak; never before have they been accompanied by tangible proof.
Does this then mark a watershed for protest in Myanmar, long derided as a freedom of speech black spot? While the signals are promising, a degree of prudence is advised: a bill submitted by the home affairs minister, a stalwart of the former junta who has retained his lieutenant general’s title in the “civilian” government, is currently being discussed in parliament. If successful, it will enshrine into law tight restrictions on the ability of Myanma to demonstrate, including a requirement that campaigners get permission from police a week prior to marching. Personal details of those leading the protest are also needed, meaning that even if it publicly goes ahead, accompanied by applause from the international community, quiet retribution can still follow.
This is the crux of the argument that has pitted pro-democracy factions against one another: is the reform superficial, and a means to institutionalise military governance behind a civilian facade, or are we really seeing the cancerous policies of Myanmar’s past rooted out of the system? While the Myitsone decision appears to lend some credence to Thein Sein’s grandiose proclamations, and must be welcomed, it should also be viewed in terms of what he hasn’t pledged: namely whether the 2,150 already displaced from the construction area can return; whether related projects along the Irrawaddy River will also be halted; and evidence that the “people’s will” is to guide domestic policy from here on out. Moreover, military offensives in Kachin state, where the dam is located, are intensifying, and those displaced by fighting greatly outnumber those driven out of the Myitsone site. These must also be stopped.
With the ball still in China’s court (CPI controls the vast construction site, and thus it is up to them whether or not to withdraw), the president’s diplomatic clout will also be put to the test when he meets Chinese officials to discuss the suspension. His challenges are many, but above all else he must show a determined ability, let alone inclination, to push notions of reform beyond lip service and through the many barriers he faces.
His beguiling character has, however, left even the most hardened critics doubting their position - although prime minister under the former junta, and therefore a chief architect of much of its most maligned policy, he is pushing an openness that Myanmar hasn’t seen for nearly half a century. He also appears, at least at the moment, to be out-gunning the powerful hawks in government whom many expected would overwhelm his comparatively moderate stance.
What may come as the biggest shock of this whole event is the sudden about-face in Myanmar’s subservient relationship with China, its most powerful political ally and economic crutch. The country's dependence on its northern neighbour, despite the fierce nationalism of its rulers, has given it a degree of immunity from international pressure and largely allowed the status quo to remain. Few will have foreseen the government shelving one of China’s largest overseas projects, and thus risking a fissure in that relationship. Beijing quickly followed the announcement with requests for emergency talks, in which it will seek to convince Thein Sein that its continued political support is more valuable than a satisfied population.
It is too early to tell what the wider ramifications of the Myitsone decision will be, nor whether the initial reasons given for the suspension are genuine, and not window-dressing for something less palatable, as observers have become used to. But if Thein Sein makes it through the looming grilling from Chinese officials, then he will have demonstrated a position radically different from his predecessors: that China’s economic needs cannot ride roughshod over those of Myanma, at least on that particular issue.
Whether this will set the tone for his tenure as premier remains to be seen, and the international community, from the pro-engagement lobby to the most vitriolic critics, must continue to closely scrutinise what happens from now on. But the events of the last few days suggest a realisation in Naypyidaw that if the interests of the elite are to be maintained, a goal that has underlined government policy since military rule began in 1962 and continues to do so, then a disenfranchised population must be brought in from the cold and their demands heard and acted upon. It might be that Thein Sein, long seen as a mere underling of former junta supremo Than Shwe, has a more adept understanding of this that we’ve given him credit for.
Francis Wade is a journalist with the Democratic Voice of Burma.
You can follow Francis Wade on Twitter @Francis_Wade
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera's editorial policy.