China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” to build highways and bridges across Asia and beyond will provide a way to peace in Myanmar, helping end hostilities between ethnic armed groups and the national military and supporting the country’s economic transition and the stability of border areas, China’s ambassador to Myanmar said Thursday.
The Chinese government’s massive undertaking includes the building of new roads, railway lines, and ports in the Pacific and Indian oceans, and the construction of oil and gas pipelines to Russia, Kazakhstan, and Myanmar with the investment in infrastructure projects totaling more than U.S. $1 trillion.
“Myanmar and China are currently working on the One Belt and One Road project,” said Ambassador Hong Liang during a ceremony in Yangon, at which China donated 10 vehicles to a committee that monitors cease-fires in Myanmar.
“[Chinese] President Xi Jinping said that the One Belt, One Road is a peace route,” he said. “China will keep helping and supporting for Myanmar’s peace process as a loving neighbor country.”
At the request of the Myanmar government, China has been facilitating negotiations between the Northern Alliance — a coalition composed of four ethnic militias calling for the establishment of a federal democratic union in the country with a constitutional guarantee for a certain degree of autonomy for ethnic minorities — and other groups to try to reach a point where they can hold political talks to settle ethnic conflict and civil war, he said.
National unity must be implemented based on the political dialogue, and Myanmar can then proceed with economic development, he said.
Lieutenant General Yar Pyae, chairman of the Union-level Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee, which monitors the implementation of a nationwide cease-fire agreement that 10 ethnic militias have signed with the government, thanked China for contributing U.S. $1 million dollars a year to the group for three years, and U.S. $500,000 in 2017.
Other financial pledges
During a meeting in March between the Chinese and Myanmar business communities, Hong Liang pledged that China would work with Myanmar during the country's economic transition and back the government’s ongoing peace process to end decades of war.
Ongoing fighting since 2011 has resulted in an increase in the number of internal refugees and civilian deaths in eastern Myanmar’s Shan state and in northern Kachin state, both of which border China, and has stymied the government’s efforts to bring warring ethnic militias to the negotiating table.
Armed clashes between Myanmar forces and the ethnic Kokang Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army in northeastern Shan state in 2017 killed dozens, including two Chinese nationals, and forced more than 30,000 to flee to safety, mostly in China where the Chinese government housed them in refugee camps.
China, which has been providing support to Myanmar to hold a third round of peace talks under the government’s 21st-Century Panglong Conference, has said that it firmly opposes any attempt to undermine peace and stability along the China-Myanmar border and any act deliberately obstructing Myanmar’s peace process. The next round of talks will be held on July 11-16.
China is also believed by security experts to be the direct or indirect source of weapons for many of the ethnic armies fighting the Myanmar government.
China also pledged U.S $147,000 to Myanmar in September 2017 for government efforts in violence-ridden Rakhine state, where a brutal military offensive that began in August 2017 displaced more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims who fled to safety in neighboring Bangladesh.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the violence in Rakhine was unacceptable and that it was “imperative to reduce tensions, avoid harming innocent people, [and] prevent the spread of the humanitarian crisis,” according to a report at the time by the Indo Asian News Service.
Hong’s comments come two days after Soe Win, Myanmar’s minister of planning and finance, said that the government would try to reduce the scale of a Chinese-led U.S. $10-billion special economic zone (SEZ) project in the Rakhine town of Kyaukphyu.
The town's 4,000-acre SEZ started out as a joint venture between the Chinese and Myanmar governments, but is now in the hands of a private Singapore-based consortium of developers. The area has a natural deep-sea harbor and abundant oil, natural gas, and marine resources as well as land for industrial development.
The Chinese backers plan to build Myanmar’s largest port and an industrial park in the SEZ in addition to U.S. $2.5-billion dual oil and natural gas pipelines that run to southwestern China’s Yunnan province as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.
Soe Win told the Nikkei Asian Review that Myanmar must heed “lessons that we learned from our neighboring countries, that overinvestment is not good sometimes.”
In 2017, Sri Lanka turned management control of its Chinese-financed Hambantota port over to Chinese companies after the country could not repay debt accrued from the project to China.
Road damage blamed on Chinese
Not everyone in Myanmar is happy with Chinese investment or with Chinese firms operating in their country.
Residents who live between Myitkyina and Waingmaw townships in Kachin state have complained about heavily-loaded Chinese banana plantation trucks causing road damage.
The trucks transport fertilizer from China to Myanmar and transport out banana plant tissue, though some residents have raised questions about whether they are also carrying illegal drugs since their cargoes are completely covered and not visible.
“The trucks almost always pass along this road, and it has been raining every day during this period,” local resident Tin Myint told RFA’s Myanmar Service Thursday.
“Because these 22-wheel trucks are very heavy with bananas and fertilizer, the road has been badly destroyed,” he said. “I think the bridge on the road will soon collapse. We are worried.”
Aung San Htoo, head of Talaw Gyi village, said local residents have informed authorities about road damage from the trucks and met with a Kachin state minister on Wednesday to request that the thoroughfare be repaired.
“I heard that a company that got permission to repair the road has begun fixing it today, but the problem is that different companies are fixing the road section by section, so some companies are doing it and some are not doing it,” he said.
“As long as the road is not completely repaired, we can’t go anywhere,” he said. “We want authorities to prohibit these trucks from driving on this road during the rainy season.”
Renowned for its heroin production, Kachin state has implemented crop-substitution programs in recent years to replace the poppy cultivation that produces opium.
“We have had more problems with illegal drugs since we got banana tissue plantations in the state,” he said. “It is difficult to go in and arrest drug users and dealers on the big banana plantations.”
“Because of these banana plantations, we also have environmental problems such as water shortages that we didn’t have before,” Aung San Htoo said.
Reported by Aung Theinkha and Kyaw Myo Min for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.