Why Myanmar is concerned about Chinese investment


I write in response to an article published here by an assistant fellow at the One Belt-One Road Strategy Institute of Tsinghua University. In my opinion, the article misread the true situation in Myanmar and might unintentionally jeopardize the reform agenda of the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, particularly in regard to economic development and infrastructure.

First, the author's accusation that Myanmar is a haven for NGOs is ridiculous. There are many scholarly articles that attest to the shrinking civic space in Myanmar, especially among rights-based civil society organizations. Although environmental NGOs remain quite strong and influence policy changes to a certain extent, they also face resistance from the government and civil society groups. For instance, in opposing a coal-fired power plant, an environmental group must produce a credible alternative or receive criticism from different quarters. 

Next comes the theory that the NLD government, swayed by public opinion, has gone too extreme against foreign investment. This is completely wrong. State Counselor and NLD Party Chairperson Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has stated several times that she and her party will not give priority to electoral politics but to the country's long-term development and the greater public interest. If the author had read the report of Let Pa Daung Commission, she would understand that the government cannot and will not be influenced by unrealistic and unreasonable public opinion hurtful to the country's long-term interests. Long before it came to power, the NLD built a constructive relationship with the Chinese government and more recently agreed a 15-point Memorandum of Understanding on implementing a China-Myanmar Economic Corridor. Indeed, many observers now see the NLD as closer to China than the West due to the Rakhine crisis. 

Please remember that the NLD was born out of 88 uprisings. It is a mass-based party that won a landslide victory in the 2015 election. Due to its strong legitimacy, the NLD can effectively bypass civil society if it really needs to implement desired policies. In a civil society, there are radical groups that protest any investment - Chinese or Western - but there are also those groups that seek to promote a more rational economic development through a more thorough analysis of investments. 

It is in this context that history casts a long shadow over Chinese investments in Myanmar. A generally negative perception persists among the Myanmar people. Many believe the root causes of authoritarianism, ethnic conflict reside in the unfair extraction of natural resources and consequential environmental degradation. Many have heard stories of illegally extracted natural resources like jade and teak being exported to China. There are many who assume the Chinese will simply exploit Myanmar's natural resources. 

Through decades of massive deforestation, environmental degradation, floods and natural disasters, popular awareness has steadily heightened toward the threat of natural resource mismanagement and environmental degradation. That's the real reason why people from all walks of life came out to protest a planned Chinese-invested dam project at the confluence of Ayeyarwaddy, the main artery of Myanmar's socioeconomic life. The author should not portray these protests as knee-jerk resource nationalism and environmental politics. What protesters demand is a more professional, transparent natural resource governance that addresses long-running ethnic conflicts, promotes sustainable development and serves the interests of present and future generations. 

The author's last accusation might be correct: that the NLD government has adopted a strategy of neither drifting apart from China nor being overly dependent. Since she appears to think this a bad idea, perhaps she could explain why a country should choose to depend completely on one superpower. Such an overdependence might help in the short to medium term. As a country in transition to democracy and with a developing economy, Myanmar must by all means avoid not becoming entangled in any geostrategic rivalry. 

Sandwiched between India and China, Myanmar is more vulnerable than other countries. In this multi-polar world, the NLD leadership addresses multi-faceted issues challenging the country's transition to democracy and stability while at the same cooperating with regional and multilateral institutions. For Myanmar to prosper, it must work within a rule-based framework of multilateral and regional institutions. Some are led by China, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

China and Myanmar have more in common than many other countries. I am personally aware of the benefits of the Belt and Road initiative, if managed properly and fairly by both sides. According to Justin Yifu Lin, a former World Bank chief economist and honorary dean of the Peking University, China's manufacturing sector can shed 85 million low-skilled jobs to developing countries and that would contribute to the modernization and industrialization of all countries along the Silk Road. 

We, the people of Myanmar, have legitimate concerns about Chinese investments and these concerns cannot be erased by force but must be addressed responsibly by authorities from both countries. What the NLD government should pursue is a right and proper political management.

The author is director of the Sandhi Governance Institute in Yangon, Myanmar. 

Courtesy Global Times

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