Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004

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@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

News about the protests that spread through several Burma towns last week over power shortages should be welcomed as a positive development in the country’s bid to achieve a full democratic transition.

The series of peaceful protests started in Mandalay, where hundreds of residents gathered in front of a government electricity agency to condemn the power blackouts in the city. There, locals lighted candles in the evening and displayed posters even without being pre-approved by the censors. It was a rare spontaneous gathering of consumers who are all furious over the failure of authorities to adequately explain why electricity is available for only six hours in a day.

After Mandalay, residents of Monywa, Pyi, Bago, and the Thonse townships who are also suffering from the blackouts conducted street protests and candle lighting activities over the past week. Even Facebook users changed their profile pictures to an image of candles against a dark background to show support for the protests.

The government blamed a bomb blast that destroyed a transmission tower connected to a hydropower plant for the electricity shortage, which crippled several cities in the country. But citizens aren’t satisfied with this excuse. Indeed, many people have questioned instead the continued sale of Burma’s natural gas supply and other energy resources to neighboring China despite the power crisis in the country. The fact that some of the protests have also been organized in front of the Chinese embassy reflects the disapproval of many citizens over the sales to China. It didn’t help that the minister for the Ministry of Electric Power publicly defended the energy trade with China, which only inflamed opinion. The minister’s resignation is now being demanded by protesters for his remarks.

Unsurprisingly, the initial response of the police was to harass and arrest some protesters. But surprisingly, the detained civilians were immediately released. Maybe the junta-backed government had already sensed the popular indignation at the grassroots level and is worried that a violent crackdown on the peaceful assemblies could trigger bigger protests in the future which it wouldn’t be able to handle. The ruling coalition, which experienced a humiliating landslide defeat in the recent local elections, stands to lose even more political clout if the opposition or the pro-democracy movement is able to harness the emerging community-based people power in the blackout-hit towns of Burma.

It’s not to the junta’s credit that protests are allowed to prosper in Burma. The police initially tried to suppress and limit the protests in a single town, but they failed. Perhaps inspired by the recent electoral victory of the opposition, it seems Burmese citizens are more aggressive and bolder in expressing their views today. Young people are no longer afraid to call for the dismissal of a government minister.

Much has been said of the so-called reforms implemented by the Burmese government, which included the release of political prisoners and the holding of open elections. These reforms were quickly accepted by several global leaders, which could pave the way for the entry of more aid and investment into Burma. But these suspect junta-driven reforms can be easily reversed, making it even more necessary to look for sustainable democracy initiatives from below. The string of community protests that erupted last week is a fine example of a people-driven reform movement that has the potential to guide Burma’s transition to democracy.

Written for The Diplomat

Is China a Bad Investor?

Last month, thousands of Burmese residents took to the streets to complain about the daily blackouts that have plagued the country’s big urban centers. But aside from criticizing the ineptitude of their officials, the protesters also linked the power supply shortage to China’s massive purchase of the country’s energy resources. A spontaneous protest took place in front of the Chinese embassy, where residents expressed outrage over the government’s decision to sell energy reserves to China’s manufacturing hubs while many Burmese are living in the dark.

The protest is quite similar to the rise of a citizen movement that opposed the construction of a China-backed mega dam along the Irrawaddy River last year. Thousands of villagers resisted the project because their homes will be demolished. Because of the popular appeal of the movement, the government was forced to suspend the project. It was perhaps the first time that the junta-anointed government responded positively to a civil society petition. China, of course, frowned upon the decision

The protests in Burma reflect the rising economic ties between China and its neighbors in Southeast Asia on the one hand, and the uneven consequences of China’s investments on the other. After years of spectacular economic growth, China has more than enough resources at its disposal to massively invest in many countries. Chinese capital is behind many of the region’s several large scale investments in hydropower, mining, timber, agriculture, and infrastructure.

China has been Southeast Asia’s key trading partner for several centuries. This isn’t surprising as China shares land borders with Indochina. In recent years, it has become a leading investor in the region. It is, in some senses, the new Japan.

These investments are generally welcomed because of the jobs they create and their positive impact on local economies. But opposition to China’s aggressive economic expansion in the region has also emerged. The negative reaction is partly fueled by nationalist motives as local tycoons reject foreign competition. But it’s also an issue of survival and human rights for the thousands of ordinary residents who have been displaced by Chinese-funded development projects.

For example, Cambodian farmers have been complaining over a de facto Chinese “invasion” of their lands. According to the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, the Cambodian government granted 4,615,745 hectares in concessions to 107 Chinese-owned firms since 1994. Of that total, 3,374,328 hectares were forest concessions, 973,101 hectares were economic land concessions and 268,316 hectares were mining concessions.

Chinese firms are also accused of violating local laws, in particular the bribing of top officials in many countries. In the Philippines, Chinese investments on IT and railways have been cancelled by the government after it was revealed that bribes were paid by Chinese firms to secure political approval.

The emergence of China as a global economic powerhouse brings tremendous benefits to its cash-strapped neighbors in Southeast Asia. But as China expands its economic clout, it must be ready to account for the varying consequences of its actions. Many Southeast Asians feel that their countries are being treated as just another market to dominate and exploit by China, even though the region has been a reliable trading partner and neighbor for many centuries.

Indeed, while China’s economic resources can transform poor villages into prosperous communities, it can also be used to destroy the environment, violate rights, and worsen corruption in the region. China shouldn’t only wisely choose its investments – it must also respect the different customs, traditions, and political systems of its neighbors. Otherwise, Southeast Asians might decide to close their doors to their rich neighbor and seek other, more responsible, investors

Written for The Diplomat

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