RANGOON — Since beginning its transition to quasi-civilian rule in 2011, Burma’s relations with the outside world have changed dramatically and, for the most part, positively. One notable exception, however, has been the country’s ties with China, which have seen a series of setbacks, mostly involving Chinese investment in mega-projects that many Burma citizens see as exploitative.
After the suspension of the Chinese-backed Myitsone hydropower dam project in Kachin State in September 2011, Beijing was forced to re-evaluate its approach to dealing with Burma, also known as Myanmar. Providing arms and other support to Burma’s generals to win access to resources and other strategically important assets is no longer enough: Popular opinion must now also be taken into consideration.
China’s new ambassador to Burma, Yang Houlan, has taken pains to show that Beijing is listening. And in this interview with Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of The Irrawaddy’s English-language edition, and senior reporter Saw Yan Naing, he also makes clear that bilateral relations are still on track, despite the challenges they have faced in the wake of recent reforms.
Question: In 2011, President U Thein Sein decided to postpone the Chinese-backed Myitsone dam project in Kachin State. Many say that this soured the relationship between Myanmar and China. Do you agree?
Answer: From my point of view, it was an isolated case. We understand there was something behind this decision, but I think it will not affect the relationship between the two sides. After assuming the post of president in 2011, U Thein Sein visited China, and both sides have promoted their “comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation” and this year signed an action plan for strategic partnership. The general relationship is still very good. The momentum is still good.
Since my arrival here four months ago, I have had many discussions with friends from different fields, such as politics, social organizations and the government. My impression is that all Myanmar people, the government, ministries, social organizations and different parties have a strong desire to further develop relations with China, especially economic ties.
[Regarding Myitsone], Myanmar is now entering a period of rampant agricultural and industrial development. If you want to develop industry, the power supply is a basic need. Without electricity, how can you develop the industrial sector?
Q: So would you like to see the Myitsone dam project restarted?
A: I think if we want to resume this project, we need to do communication and consultation between the two sides. We need to set up some mechanism and have more discussions. But of course, we respect the Myanmar government’s decision and we also respect the people’s views about the project.
Q: As you say, the Chinese embassy is now actively reaching out not only to the authorities, but also to opposition groups, civil society organizations and people on the ground. Why didn’t you do this in the past?
A: Over the past two years, Myanmar has opened up, and social organizations and the media are more active. This has created so many positive conditions. The social and political atmosphere here has positively changed. Myanmar’s stability and development are in China’s interests. Now, in a globalized world, no country can develop in isolation. To continue our economic relations, we need strong and solid social bases. So we should get support from different factions and different people.
Q: Myanmar now has closer relations with the West and other Asian countries, including Japan. How do you feel about this?
A: As I mentioned, in this globalized world, no country can develop without good relations with the outside world. In the past, when some Western countries imposed sanctions against Myanmar, China didn’t support it because this kind of isolation is not good for the Myanmar people. Those who suffered from these sanction were not only officials but also ordinary people. It was the people who suffered most, not senior officials. That’s why China called on the international community to lift the sanctions.
It is good that Myanmar has opened up and developed relations with the whole world, including the Western countries. I hope all nations can join hands to facilitate Myanmar’s development process.
Q: Some observers say that the United States decided to start engaging with Myanmar because it was worried about China’s influence in the country. What is your response to this?
A: I’ve read newspapers and talked to friends here, and they have a similar idea. They talk about the power struggle in Myanmar, especially between China and the US. I think it would be unfortunate if such a thing happens. If there is a power struggle between China and US, it will also not be good for Myanmar. We hope it doesn’t happen. China doesn’t support the idea of a zero-sum game. We should have a policy of win-win cooperation. Some Myanmar politicians also make it very clear that Myanmar should not become a battlefield of bigger powers. That is not the desire of the Myanmar people. We welcome the US to play a constructive role in Myanmar.
Q: Some Chinese companies, such as the China Power Investment Corporation, have been criticized for their lack of transparency. Would you like to comment on that?
A: You may have noticed our embassy’s website. We have a website to clear rumors, and we also have a Facebook page. The Chinese government also encourages Chinese companies, especially those in foreign countries, to take responsibility for social affairs. Social responsibility is very important for the people. We have learned from the past that we need to communicate more with people.
Q: Chinese authorities have also gotten involved in peace talks between ethnic Kachin rebels and the Myanmar government. What are your concerns about border areas?
A: China strongly supports peace talks between the two sides. China also wants to play a positive role. Stability in the northern part of Myanmar, which borders China, is of course not just a concern for Myanmar, but also for China. In the past, some bullets have landed on China’s side. Also, when there are conflicts on the Myanmar side, hundreds of thousands of people cross over into China. Stability in northern Myanmar is good for China.
We hope that the Kachin and the government can talk directly. To sign a ceasefire agreement and realize peace, they first need to build trust. China is confident that they will sign the agreement because it is in the interests of both sides.
Q: Many Myanmar people resent the fact that in the past, China seemed to side with the military junta, and not with them. What do you say to this?
A: Not only China but also Russia and your neighboring countries supported Myanmar. China supported the military regime, but that doesn’t mean China supported military rule. We thought of Myanmar as a nation with its people. We built roads and made some factories and agricultural projects. That was for the people, not just the military. If every country had isolated Myanmar, the people would have been the first to suffer. So it is not true that China only supported the military regime.
Q: You recently donated 1 million kyat (US$1,000) to the National League for Democracy. China didn’t support Myanmar’s democracy forces in the past, so why now?
A: In the past, China just focused on action, not talk. But now we need to have more communication to get understanding from the people. Just action without talking is not good practice for China now. We should change it. We encourage Chinese enterprises here to communicate more with society. Otherwise, people don’t understand what we are doing. [Chinese companies] should also respect the local society and take responsibility for the social impact of their actions.
Q: Do you think China now finds itself in a difficult position as Myanmar opens up and more foreign partners approach the country?
A: I don’t think so. Quick social and economic development in Myanmar is good for China. It will provide more opportunities for our mutual beneficial cooperation. But of course, with new opportunities come new challenges.