New Myanmar govt faces pressure on Chinese infrastructure projects

The incoming administration must introduce better accountability mechanisms and international standards for projects undertaken by Chinese companies, according to observers.

By May Wong, Myanmar Correspondent, Channel NewsAsia
Posted 04 Jan 2016 16:13 Updated 04 Jan 2016 16:32

YANGON: One of the key issues for Myanmar’s incoming new government will be how it deals with some unpopular Chinese infrastructure projects in the country.

One of the most controversial construction developments in Myanmar is the Myitsone Dam project in the country’s troubled northern state of Kachin. In 2011, construction on the hydropower dam was halted due to fierce protests by the locals.

The Myitsone Dam project is not the only China-led development that Myanmar citizens are bitterly opposed to. Other projects that have incurred the ire of locals are the Letpadaung Copper Mine and the Myanmar-Yunnan railway connecting Myanmar’s western coast to China.

A change in government can be seen as an opportune time to revisit discussions over controversial infrastucture projects and with Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party about to take power, China will no doubt be keen to seize this apparent opportunity.

Some observers say the NLD administration must introduce better accountability mechanisms and international standards for these projects. They hope the new government will not compromise the welfare of its citizens for the sake of enhancing relations with its giant northern neighbour.

“One of China’s requests is likely to be the restarting of the very controversial Myitsone Dam which will very difficult for her to agree to,” said Richard Horsey, political analyst. “And so she’ll have to find ways to reassure China that she respects the relationship that she’ll continue to nurture the relationship, while at the same time, rebalancing with the US and the West.”

He added: “She’s going to have to find ways to reassure China that even if she can’t give them that, there are other ways that she can reassure them about the security of their huge investment projects.”


But civil societies hope the new NLD government will be much more transparent and not just pander to the superpower next door.

“Myanmar has already signed bilateral investment treaties with quite a number of countries, for example with China, India, Thailand, as well as with the EU,’ said Khon Ja, co-ordinator, Kachin Peace network. “So this is really very scary for Myanmar people because the country is protecting outsiders but not our own people.”

Poorly compensated, Myanmar’s citizens continue to be displaced by large companies who many believe are taking all the country’s natural wealth and not sharing the profits fairly.

“NLD will lose the people’s support if it allows the projects,” said Ko Ko Zaw, Member, Mon State Civilian Ceasefire Monitoring Committee. “The next government will have to review the projects, explain it to the people and then allow projects which have the people’s consent.”

Kai Ra, a social activist, added: “Recently, many people died in the Hpakant jade mine collapse, and if they continue with these policies, we’ll see more conflicts happening between the local people and the local authorities.”

But China remains Myanmar’s top international investor, making up 27 per cent of the country’s total foreign investments at US$15.4 billion as of November 2014.

And given how Myanmar shares a border with China, some say the new government will have to introduce a different style of governance to handle this bilateral relationship more carefully and strategically, while managing the citizens’ expectations. 

– CNA/rw