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Is Myanmar about to rejoin the world?

One of the three most closed and isolated countries in the world is opening up. The long-repressed Burmese say it's unbelievable - but they want to believe in a new Myanmar.

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Basic grass-roots efforts like this are having an impact, both on people's awareness and on government and business behavior. "NGOs have influence," says Kyaw Thu, who heads a coalition of local and international activist groups.

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NGO lobbying persuaded parliament to amend a land law last year, he points out; a media campaign by environmental groups forced the government to suspend construction of a coal-fired power plant near the planned port of Dawei last January; and a women's group working with the Rakhine ethnic minority obliged Indian investors to do environmental and social impact assessments before going ahead with a development project that threatens to displace local families.

But the pressure groups' crowning victory, a triumph whose implications reverberated far beyond Myanmar's borders, came last September, when the government suspended work on the Myitsone Dam.

The shadow of China changes shape

Myitsone lies at the confluence of two rivers that join to form the Irrawaddy, Myanmar's sacred watercourse. It also lies at the confluence of two key challenges for the Myanmar government – its relations with neighboring China and its relations with ethnic minorities.

Ever since the previous military junta signed a $3.6 billion deal with a Chinese state-owned company to build a giant dam and hydropower station at Myitsone, in the northern state of Kachin, the project has been controversial.

Environmentalists feared ecological damage; the Kachin Independence Organization, which has been at war with the government on and off for decades, was angered by the desecration of its homeland; many people in Myanmar resented the fact that 90 percent of the project's electricity would be fed to China, while they themselves suffer persistent power cuts.

The dam, however, was a centerpiece of Sino-Burmese cooperation and an emblem of China's leading role in Myanmar's economic development. So when the new government bowed to a public campaign last September and announced the suspension of work on the project, it was a clarion call to the world that Myanmar's relationship with China was changing, and that the country was ready to reorient itself.

For 15 years, Myanmar has been an international pariah, subject to economic sanctions by the United States and other Western governments as punishment for human rights violations against political opponents and ethnic rebels. Starved of capital, technology, and markets, the ruling generals turned to China for diplomatic and economic support.

Chinese businessmen have poured into the north of the country, selling Chinese-made goods, establishing rubber plantations, and buying up timber, gems, and jade. Beijing sold the weapons to the junta, and its state-owned enterprises launched giant construction projects, such as a pipeline designed to carry oil and gas from a port on Myanmar's Indian Ocean coast to central China.

That pipeline, giving China its first direct access to the Indian Ocean, will be of extreme geopolitical significance to Beijing. Myanmar's generals, many of whom cut their teeth fighting Chinese-backed Communist rebels 40 years ago, appear to have seen potential danger in becoming so important to China, while needing its giant neighbor so badly.

The danger might be diffused if Myanmar had better relations with the West, and comments by senior US and European officials in the wake of the recent elections suggest they are prepared to start lifting sanctions, if only gradually.

Officially, Beijing has welcomed such a prospect. On the ground, though, Chinese influence seems bound to wane, say Chinese analysts.


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