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Belt and Road must learn from mistakes of Myitsone Dam, says academic

The success of China’s Belt and Road scheme hinges on whether Beijing can learn from the mistakes of Myitsone Dam and engage with Myanmar on an equal basis, the chair of a Singapore-based think tank says.

Kachin activists protest against the Myitsone Dam outside the hotel where the Chinese ambassador stayed in Myitkyina, Kachin State, on June 4, 2016. Photo - EPA

By Su Phyo Win

Yangon, Myanmar, July 5, 2017

Myanmar Times

Following the 2nd ASEAN-Myanmar Forum hosted by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) in Sedona Hotel on June 28, Simon Tay, SIIA chair, sat down with The Myanmar Times for an exclusive interview. The Myanmar Times previously covered part of the interview on the China-led Kyaukphyu project.

Lee is conspicuous by his absence in BRI meeting

In mid-May, China’s decision not to invite Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing reflects the tension between the two countries following a few diplomatic fallouts last year. Mr Lee’s conspicuous absence is the odd one out in the region: the presidents of the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Laos as well as the prime ministers of Cambodia and Malaysia were invited and attended the summit meeting.

But investment figures suggest another picture.

Over 60 percent of Chinese overseas direct investment (ODI) flows to BRI countries in 2013 –15 were directed to ASEAN countries, with the lion city attracting by far the largest share, according to think-tank The Economist Intelligence Unit.

“That investment [to Singapore] is unlikely to be related to the core infrastructure-development purpose of the BRI, and will have more to do with the attractions of the Singaporean business environment,” the think tank noted.

The Myanmar Times asked Mr Tay about the discrepancy between China’s diplomatic gesture and investment figures. He suggested that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is the silver lining in the cloud – the only piece of good news in a time where uncertainties and chaos plague different parts of the world.

“First, the Chinese must be congratulated. If you look at the world today, it is like a weather with grey clouds and there’s no sunshine anywhere. And that one spot of sunlight in the grey sky is the BRI. For Europeans and Americans, there isn’t really any positive news.

“The BRI idea could be very big. It’s good for businesses, good for people and good for cooperation. So this is the positive side.

“Every country in this region likes infrastructure … but we cannot undertake infrastructure alone,” he said.

The lessons from Myitsone Dam

The BRI idea is good. The tricky part, according to Mr Tay, is the implementation.

“Even if you have a good idea, implementation is the key. And then implementation has concerns. We have some question marks over China,” he said.

The academic mentioned that the Myitsone Dam is a valuable lesson for China and Myanmar. He said the issue is that China wanted a dam built in Myanmar with most of the power generated going to China. But most of the environmental and social problems would have remained in Myanmar.

“During another forum in Thailand, I mentioned Myitsone Dam. When China was supporting Myanmar’s development earlier, they wanted the Myitsone Dam, where most of the power would have gone to China. But most problems would have stayed here.

“How can this be good for Myanmar?

“The previous and current [Myanmar] governments are right to stop the project and not restart it in the same way. So can a dam or a road be good? It depends on how you do it,” he said.

The BRI must prove that the implementation is done in the right way, Mr Tay went on. China needs to illustrate how benefits are mutual.

“There is the mutual benefit and it will have some pollution, and some people will have to move houses. But we need to minimise the problems.

“When we look at China [China’s approach] on development, it likes communism and does not care about people. They [China] want to build a dam and they just move the people. They give compensation to farmers but when the farmers get the actual money, the amount is so little.

“These are all documented by various international sources.

“What China needs to do on the BRI is show mutual benefit. In a few countries that have been successful, in a way the success story can be told. Myanmar and Thailand will be good partners for China. Because Thailand is not a small country, it is not so weak but it does need help. But then China must do partners,” he noted.

For China, Myanmar used to be the same as North Korea

Despite China’s snub on Singapore’s prime minister, Mr Tay believed the relationship between the two countries is “very good”.

“But sometimes, with such a good relationship, you expect more. Sometimes, China doesn’t know where the line is.

“In terms of politics, China is so big. Even if China is not trying to dominate you, it is. It just happens like a big guy who enters a room and takes up a lot of space. That’s China or America,” he said.

Three quarters of Singapore’s population are ethnic Chinese and hence China expected the city state to follow the line very closely, he explained. On the issue of the South China Sea, he said the Singaporean government merely pointed out the relevant law.

“So China didn’t invite my prime minister but I think we mustn’t care too much. We want to have good relationship for itself but a good relationship takes two people to understand. If China just said ‘everything I say is right and you must say is right’. That’s not a good relationship.

“For Myanmar, until U Thein Sein’s government, China was treating Myanmar like how it treated North Korea. They really expected Myanmar to follow everything they wanted.

“Now … there must be a more equal relationship. But this is a big step for China,” he remarked, saying that China must be able to work with others on an equal basis.

In dealing with big powers such as the US and China, Mr Tay emphasised that Myanmar should prioritise collective diplomacy as a member of ASEAN.

“Being from ASEAN, one of the questions for me is to always think about how we work as a group.

“Everyone in this group, whether it is a small country like Singapore or big countries like Indonesia, Myanmar and Vietnam, realises that ten is better than anyone. I hope Myanmar understands that.

“China, America or Japan is always very important. But working as ten countries is always better than working as one. At first it was not clear whether the NLD-led government understood this.

“To be fair to them, when they went to opposition and when they went in jail, some of their neighbours did nothing. So, in this sense, there is no natural friendship.

“People were worried that the way Myanmar can try to go on their own, which is not good for ASEAN and not good for Myanmar either. Now we are more assured because The Lady has turned up everywhere with ASEAN which is good, if ASEAN can work together,” he went on.

The academic said that for both political reasons and business interests, he hopes Myanmar can see the benefit for being part of ASEAN.

“Of course, ASEAN very much welcomes Myanmar, the new Myanmar. The previous Myanmar always had problems with the politics, Western sanctions and business issues because the government closed the economy,” the SIIA chair concluded.

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