Decision to stop controversial Chinese-backed project should not be taken as a ‘watershed’ moment in Myanmar’s march to democracy, writes Liu Yun.

In his short but influential book, The Whig Interpretation of History, British historian Herbert Butterfield coined the term “Whig history”, which denounced a long held English view of the past as a steady march to greater liberty, enlightenment and progress.

“This immediate juxtaposition of past and present, though it makes everything easy and makes some inferences perilously obvious, is bound to lead to an oversimplification of the relations between events and misapprehension of the relations between past and present,” Butterfield wrote.

Today, when pundits regularly invoke Myanmar’s remarkable democratic transition, and consequent impacts on relations with Beijing, they get a little Whiggish and quite wet – diving into a dam dilemma as proof of the Southeast Asian nation’s recent and rapid progress.

Many a pundit, analyst and observer have implicitly taken the suspension of the controversial and China-backed Myitsone dam in 2011, which also saw the inauguration of the quasi-civil USDP government, as their starting point for Myanmar’s sprint towards democracy and reconfigured global connections.

The unexpected interruption of the hydroelectric power project has been assigned such great importance only because it suits the narrative of Whiggish, evolutionary progress in both domestic politics and international relations. Adding fuel to the fire, is the fact that two months after the project’s suspension US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a landmark visit to Myanmar.

As one analyst claims:

Myanmar’s reversal on the Myitsone dam became a watershed moment for the country’s democratic transition. It helped to bring an end to Myanmar’s international isolation, and an easing of the long-standing Western sanctions that made Myanmar so dependent on China in the first place.

This argument is based on an illusion that history is divided into (pardon the pun) ‘watershed’ moments. Worse, it has come full circle with some seeing the Myitsone dam suspension as being driven by the country’s decision to move towards democracy.

Such narrow historiography makes it hard for anyone to properly envision or deeply understand the Myitsone dam dilemma in all its complexity – an issue that is further complicated by considerable challenges like Kachin localism, Burmese nationalism, and cultural symbolism. In light of this complex situation, I have previously proposed that any decision on the Myitsone dam should not be judged as an indication of Myanmar’s flirtation with the West. Nor should it be simply seen as an example of the special ‘Paukphaw’ friendship shared with China.

The belief that the Myitsone dam suspension paved the way for democratic reform relies largely on an unjustified idea that by targeting the megaproject President Thein Sein’s government was willing to cast off the view of Myanmar as a Chinese client state. Yet, the key considerations of the USDP government could be reliably and just as easily attributed to mounting domestic pressures, including widespread public opposition, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s campaign against the dam, as well as the armed conflicts that had erupted in Kachin State.

Beijing’s thoughts and motivations also need to be taken in to account. When Myanmar foreign minister, U Wunna Maung Lwin, visited China in October 2011, he met with then-Vice President Xi Jinping. The meeting notes indicated that Xi did not call for reactivation of the Myitsone project. Arguably, a mutual understanding still exists between the two countries to maintain the so-called “China-Myanmar comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership.” Clearly then, the dam’s suspension has not damned the two countries’ long-term relationship.

Unfortunately, the Whig interpretation of the Myitsone dam’s suspension has been well-accepted in both ideology and practice. Consequently, what was supposed to be a technical and administrative issue has turned out to be a grand narrative further restricting the decision-making flexibility of leaders in both Myanmar and China? Both countries need to go through a hard bargaining process in order to solve this bilateral issue since the leaders have become trapped by this issue.

It is crucial to clear the dark clouds of misunderstanding hanging over the Myitsone dam. We must consider what are the real advantages and disadvantages of the Myitsone dam, for both the people of China and Myanmar. We must also consider whether hydropower offers the best resource for economic and social development in both countries. And we must also consider whether the people of Myanmar want the dam at all.

This will help dispel the Whiggish myth surrounding this complex issue, and focus our thinking on the essential and technical elements of this problem in order to find the best possible solution. Now that would be progress.

Liu Yun is an independent analyst based in China. He regularly writes on Myanmar, and can be reached at: [email protected]