Commentary 2016/48, 19 August 2016
Every move by Myanmar’s de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is a topic of interest. Her current Beijing visit is no exception, and merits consideration along two main foci.
Bilateral Relations are not Binary
Bilateral relations since “time immemorial” were calibrated to balance between competing strategic interests after World War II. But the military junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which took power in 1988 moved closer to China when international sanctions were imposed after the SLORC overturned the 1990 election victory by the National League for Democracy (NLD). China’s economic footprint in Myanmar grew through extractive investments, cross-border trade, and development and military aid. China is still firmly entrenched in Myanmar, though its dominance started waning when Myanmar began to diversify its external partnerships. The NLD government is implementing a nuanced policy of engagement by involving China in Myanmar’s peace talks, and visiting Beijing before travelling to Washington DC.
China is interested to resume the US$3.6 bn Myitsone Dam hydropower project suspended in 2011 by former President Thein Sein. Myitsone – the confluence of twin rivers into the Irrawaddy – strikes an emotional chord in Myanmar. The river’s Irrawaddy’s historical significance, and environmental and local community concerns have made Myitsone the story of a smaller state standing up for itself. Any discussion on the future of Myitsone will involve addressing transparency and accountability in natural resource extraction, and considerations for the country’s water resource management to manage floods and ensure sustainable use. Myanmar’s participation in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) presents an opportunity. Myanmar became an EITI candidate in 2014, and aims for full membership by 2017. This will be based on implementation of the EITI Standard which requires full disclosure of revenue from the extractives sector, and accountability towards affected communities and sectors. Hydropower is part of Myanmar’s 2017 EITI report. Myanmar’s EITI implementation has the potential to introduce constructive change in resource governance and investor engagement. The importance that China places on its long-term relationship with Myanmar, particularly as a participant in the “One Belt One Road”, may also influence negotiations.
Moe Thuzar is Fellow and Lead Researcher at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. She has 10 years of service at the ASEAN Secretariat.
The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.