Page 1 of 3 Dams, teeth, and Myanmar's China ties
By Peter Lee
Myanmar hosted three important visitors during the week of November 28: Hillary
Clinton, Secretary of State of the United States of America; Mikhail
Myasnikovich, Prime Minister of Belarus; and, from China, the wisdom tooth of
Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha.
The Buddha's tooth, normally residing at the Ling Guang Temple in Beijing, is
currently in the midst of a 48-day sojourn in Myanmar that it will take it to
Naypyidaw (the new capital), Yangon (aka Rangoon), and Mandalay.
Housed in a gilded reliquary and attended by an escort team uniformed in gold
silk, the tooth traveled by special plane to Naypyidaw. On its arrival, it was
paraded through the streets of
the capital by elephant and installed at the Uppatasanti Temple.
At the temple, a jumbotron, elevator, special bus facilities, and a 24-hour
cable channel were arranged to assist the faithful in their devotions.
Myanmar is socialist but not atheist. 80% of the citizens profess Buddhism. The
Buddhist establishment is an important, respected, and activist constituency in
Myanmar's political life, and frequently highly critical of the government.
It is important for the government to present itself as a supporter of
Buddhism, and stream of national military, political, and commercial luminaries
have visited the temple on the occasion of the tooth's residence to make
obeisance before the relic and provide donations.
The local media has meticulously documented the event in daily reports. For
In the evening, Director of Armoured Unit of
Commander-in-Chief (Army) Office Maj-Gen Hla Myint and wife Daw San San Aye and
family donated one earring with jade and diamond with estimated value of K
650,000, US$100 and K 100,000.
Secretary of Financial Sub-committee Deputy Director- General Dr Lin Aung of
Budget Department under the Ministry of Finance and Revenue accepted donations
and returned certificate of honour. Cash donation at the donation centers from
November 7 evening till 7 pm today amounted to K 16,789,410 and US$207, RMB 23
Yuan, 100 Baht, 60 jewelleries with estimated value of K 3,065,600, two silver
vases worthy of K 350,000 and Non Jade Buddha Image worthy of K 500,000. 
It is safe to say that this sort of spectacle cannot be thrown together at the
last minute, and was probably planned long before the closeness of Sino-Myanmar
ties was called into question by the Myitsone Dam incident.
The lead Myanmar story in the world's press, of course, is the Westward tilt of
the quasi-civilian regime of Myanmar's president, retired general Thein Sein,
as symbolized by Secretary Clinton's visit and the shock announcement of the
postponement of China's big, bad Myitsone Dam at the headwaters of the
The backstory involves the Myanmar regime's efforts to make nice with the
United States and the democratic opposition, while still quietly cleaving to
the authoritarian regimes that still provide the most reliable guarantee of its
The US has an appalling record in keeping the devil's bargain it makes with the
dictators it chooses to re-engage after previously vowing to overthrow them, as
the Myanmar junta is doubtless aware.
The multi-billion dollar effort of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi to buy himself back
into the West's good graces did not forestall a North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO) airwar in support of an anti-government rebellion and his
own murder; and the France-led Western rapprochement with Syria over the last
decade will probably not save Bashar al-Assad, who now faces a domestic
insurrection openly supported diplomatically, and backed military and
financially with only the barest fig-leaf of deniability, by the NATO and Gulf
powers and Turkey.
So, as President Thein Sein makes nice with Secretary Clinton and Aung Suu Kyi,
he doubtless realizes that if and when the emboldened democratic movement Suu
Kyi leads takes to the streets again and the government cracks down, America's
now-friendly face will harden against Naypyidaw, and anti-regime rhetoric,
diplomatic ostracization, economic sanctions, and perhaps worse courtesy of the
United States will seek to shake his regime to its foundations.
Under conditions like this, it is always desirable to keep on good relations
with China, its gigantic northern neighbor that has happily defied sanctions on
Myanmar in the past, shares a common border, is eager for strategic
cooperation, and possesses a unique asset that, although significantly devalued
by Western maneuvering, still holds some geopolitical value: a veto on the UN
The visiting tooth is a symbol of the close, if not entirely amiable
relationship between Myanmar and its gigantic northern neighbor, a relationship
that Myitsone, contrary to public perception, will probably strengthen, not
There has been a remarkable shortage of informed perspective on the tectonic
shift in Myanmar foreign policy signaled by the abrupt postponement of the
To be sure, it was intended to be perceived as a slap at China, and an olive
branch to the United States, and was duly described as such in the
The Myitsone project has become an international cause celebre.
Critics of the dam assert that it will cause environmental and social
devastation. Much simplistic Sinophobic hay has been made of the fact that 90%
of the electricity will be transmitted to China, seemingly leaving Myanmar with
nothing but a few jobs from construction and a little bit of leftover
However, an examination of the project and its natural and political
environment yields a more nuanced perspective.
The Kachin region is a major hydropower energy resource that is eyed greedily
by India and Thailand as well as China. Somebody is going to build dams there,
and the Chinese took advantage of the US-led sanction regime against the
Myanmar to go huge into the region while Myanmar's democratic neighbors were
still in the starting blocks.
Myitsone is only one of seven dams the Chinese plan to build in the Kachin
region as part of an integrated hydropower development scheme inked with the
Myanmar government in 2007. By itself, it would be the 15th-largest dam in the
world, with a 600-square mile (1,554 square kilometer) reservoir. Construction
on Myitsone and at least one other dam, Pashe, has already begun.
Lu Qizhou, president of China Power Investment Corporation, the Chinese
developer, gave a relatively complete and persuasive defense of the project
when the Myanmar government abruptly ordered a halt to work on Myitsone.
Lu pointed out that Myitsone is a BOT (Build-Operate-Transfer) deal, meaning
the developer puts up the investment, recovers the investment in the course of
operation, and then transfers the facility to the local partner free of charge.
Lu also claimed that the government of Myanmar would reap considerable income
from taxation, its 15% share in the facility, and free electricity during the
50-year BOT phase. He told China Daily:
Q: Some reports pointed out
that the project will only bring economic benefits for China. What's your
comment on that? A: This viewpoint is extremely wrong. People who hold such a
wrong viewpoint either don't understand the situation or have ulterior motives.
Regarding infrastructure, it is an international practice to implement BOT
mode. According to our BOT agreement, upon completion of the upstream-Ayeyawady
hydropower project, CPI will be responsible for operation for 50 years, after
50 years the project will be transferred to the Myanmar government free of
Either in terms of direct economic benefit or indirect profit, the
upstream-Ayeyawady hydropower project will significantly boost the fast
development of economy and society in Myanmar. In terms of direct economic
benefit, when the several hydropower stations in upstream-Ayeyawady basin,
including Myitsone Hydropower Station, are completed, Myanmar government will
gain economic benefits of USD54 billion via taxation, free electricity and
share dividends, far more than CPI's return on investment during our operation
period. In particular, as the design life of the project is over 100 years,
when we transfer it after 50-year operation, the Myanmar government will have a
fixed assets increase worth tens of billions US dollars, in addition to
hundreds of billions US dollars of direct economic benefits. 
As to technical issues surrounding the construction and safety of the dam, it
must be conceded that China knows Big Hydro, both from high profile disasters
and disappointments like the San Men Xia and Three Gorges Dams, and from
gigantic, unsung success stories like the Xiaolangdi Dam on the Yellow River.
As Lu confidently put it:
CPI is a responsible super-large energy
enterprise with 18GW operating hydropower capacity in China. We are able to
ensure the safety of dam construction. During the design and construction of
Myitsone Hydropower Station, we involved topnotch experts and teams in China,
who have designed more than 200 hydropower stations, including Shuibuya
Hydropower Station with the world's highest concrete face rockfill dam and
Malaysia's Bakun Hydropower Station. Repeated proving of the seismic safety
evaluation of Myitsone proved the absolute safety and reliability of the
project engineering scheme. The Myanmar government also organized famous
consulting organizations and experts from Switzerland and Japan to prove that
over and over. Both parties agreed that there was no seismic safety issue for
Myitsone Hydropower Station.
The seismic design of the dam in Myitsone Hydropower Station follows the
standard of fortification intensity 9, which is higher than fortification
intensity 7 of Zipingbu Hydropower Station that has withstood the Wenchuan
earthquake in Sichuan…
Local critics have invoked the plight of the local residents who will be
displaced by the project, especially by Myitsone's extremely large reservoir.