The Myanmar Times
The Myanmar Times

Chinese ambassador casts doubt on Myitsone resumption

The Chinese ambassador to Myanmar said he is “not confident” that the suspended Myitsone Dam project will be restarted, despite continued lobbying by China Power Investment Corporation.

Chinese ambassador to Myanmar Yang Houlan with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo: SuppliedChinese ambassador to Myanmar Yang Houlan with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo: Supplied

In an exclusive interview with The Myanmar Times, ambassador Yang Houlan said CPI’s efforts to address concerns surrounding the project, which was suspended in September 2011 for at least five years, have had little impact.

“I’m not confident the project can be started,” Mr Yang said on July 17.

“For the Chinese company [China Power Investment Corporation], they hope that they can make some progress through the communications and the negotiations, but as for now there has been no progress in this regard,” he said.

The head of the embassy’s political section, Gao Mingbo, said that he “didn’t have a clear picture at this stage” whether work would resume on the hydropower dam in 2015, which is the earliest the suspension could be lifted.

President U Thein Sein halted the project following fierce opposition from environmentalists, ethnic minority groups and political activists, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

With 90 percent of the electricity generated to be exported to China, many saw the project as bringing few benefits to Myanmar.

Myitsone is not the only China-backed project to face such criticisms. The Letpadaung copper mine, a joint venture between military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited and Wanbao, and oil and natural gas pipelines linking Rakhine State and Yunnan Province have also been marred by similar accusations.

Mr Yang admitted that the approach Chinese companies had taken in the past, which he described as “do more, speak less”, was no longer feasible.

“We are not so experienced on how to communicate with local people, how to make more feasibility studies on the environment and issues connected with local p[peoples’ welfare,” said Mr Yang, adding that Chinese firms could learn from how Western companies approach foreign investment.

Led by Mr Yang, a seasoned diplomat who arrived in Yangon in March after stints as ambassador in Afghanistan, the Korean peninsula and Nepal, the Chinese Embassy has stepped up its efforts to improve China’s image in Myanmar. As The Myanmar Times has previously reported, the embassy has sought to engage Myanmar internet users through social media, particularly Facebook. It also plans to re-launch its Myanmar-language magazine, China Today, later this month.

As part of these efforts, the Chinese-Myanmar Enterprises Association (CMEA), which comprises about 100 Chinese companies that work in Myanmar, issued a new set of corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives on July 5 in conjunction with the embassy. The two-page document calls for greater environmental protection, transparency and interaction with local communities in future projects.

“We are asking [Chinese companies] to adapt to the new situation,” Mr Yang said.

The guidelines show that Chinese companies understand the need to change their practices but the important test will be whether they are adhered to. Mr Yang said the embassy would work to ensure compliance but there is a risk that, however well-intentioned, the guidelines will end up looking like a public relations stunt.

While maintaining a smile throughout the interview, Mr Yang was clearly frustrated over the expectations that Chinese companies single-handedly carry out CSR projects with little or no help from Nay Pyi Taw.

“There are some things that should be the duty of the government but now the investors have to take charge,” Mr Yang said. He cited schools built by China National Petroleum Corporation along the route of the China-Myanmar pipelines as an example. Mr Yang said that after the schools were built the company received complaints from residents that it had not supplied teachers to staff them.

“Teachers are the government’s responsibility. The Chinese company cannot provide teachers for the schools,” Mr Yang said.

He said he felt Chinese companies were also unfairly singled out when working on projects with companies from other countries, while the benefits Myanmar could reap from these projects are also rarely reported in the media.