China sends 300 workers to deep sea port project in Myanmar’s Rakhine state

Experts say the workers are at risk as the military and ethnic rebels vie for control of the region.
By RFA Burmese
2024.05.03
China sends 300 workers to deep sea port project in Myanmar’s Rakhine state Workers walk on a road as China's oil pipeline project is seen in the background on Maday island, Kyaukphyu township, Rakhine state, Myanmar October 7, 2015.
Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

China has sent more than 300 technicians and workers to a deep sea port project in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state amid intense fighting between the military and ethnic rebels, according to residents.

A ship carrying the crews, along with heavy machinery and food, docked at Maday Island in Rakhine’s Kyaukphyu township on the evening of April 28, the residents told RFA Burmese, after receiving permission from the junta to work on the project in the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone, or SEZ.

The deployment comes after six months of clashes in Rakhine between junta troops and the Arakan Army, or AA – part of an alliance of three ethnic armies that have pushed the junta back in the western and northern parts of the country. 

Experts say the ethnic army victories mark a turning point in the war that began soon after the junta took control of the government in a February 2021 coup d’etat.

The Kyaukphyu SEZ’s deep sea port complex is a key Chinese-led venture for which Beijing had requested heightened security. The project was approved in 2023 by the junta and attempts to recruit locals for work have been met with controversy and distrust.

A resident of Kyaukphyu who, like others interviewed in this report, spoke on condition of anonymity due to security concerns, told RFA that some of the Chinese nationals who arrived on the ship are now residing in hotels in the township.

"Both the workers who were already there and those who recently arrived travel to Maday Island in the morning and return to the city in the evening using hovercrafts,” he said. “The ship that arrived carried Chinese experts, including engineers responsible for the power lines and water systems."

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The Myanmar military’s Danyawaddy Naval Base near Thit Poke Taung village in Kyaukphyu township, Rakhine state, seen here in Jan. 26, 2023. (Airbus)

Residents said the ship departed from Maday Island on the morning of April 30.

Attempts by RFA to reach Hla Thein, the junta’s attorney general and spokesperson for Rakhine state, for additional information about the deployment and the status of the project went unanswered.

China and Myanmar signed an agreement to implement the Kyaukphyu Deep Sea Port Project and SEZ in November 2020, under the National League for Democracy government, which was deposed months later in the military coup.

On Dec. 26, 2023, the two nations signed another agreement specifically for the deep sea port project during a meeting in Naypyidaw. Despite the agreements, residents say the project has yet to be fully implemented.

The deep sea port project is a joint venture between the neighboring countries, with Myanmar contributing 30% of the investment and China providing the remaining 70%. The port is expected to include 10 wharfs capable of docking container ships.

Developing a war zone

Kyaukphyu township has been at the forefront of fighting in recent months between the military and the AA, which in November ended a ceasefire that had been in place since the coup. Since then, the ethnic army has taken control of eight of Rakhine state’s 17 townships, as well as one township in neighboring Chin state.

Clashes and exchanges of territory occur on a near daily basis in the state.

On Thursday evening, the AA captured the pro-junta Border Guard Police Command, at which some 600 junta troops were stationed, and two pro-junta Border Guard Force camps in Maungdaw township, residents told RFA.

The AA first attacked the police command on April 25, and the capture ended a week of fighting, residents said. “Hundreds of border guard troops” retreated from the police command to Shwe Zar ward in the town of Maungdaw following the seizure, they added.

A day earlier, the AA captured two military outposts in the Mayu mountain range near the Myanmar-Bangladesh border where around 100 junta troops were stationed, according to sources close to the Rakhine rebel group. The seizure ended a nearly three-week bid by the AA for control of the camps, they said.

Residents said Friday that the Rakhine state capital Sittwe – a city of 100,000 people with typically crowded beaches and markets – has become “a ghost town,” as the AA captured nearby towns in recent months.

Those who lack the funds to relocate face a shortage of commodities and skyrocketing prices, while some are starving, they said. Junta troops have tightened security in the city since April 10, when AA chief Major Gen. Twan Mrat Naing urged residents of Sittwe and Kyaukphyu to flee to his army’s controlled territories.

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A jetty for oil tankers is seen on Maday island, Kyaukphyu township, Rakhine state, Myanmar in this October 7, 2015 file photo. (Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)

Meanwhile, the AA and junta forces are in a fierce fight for control of Rakhine’s Ann township, which is the base of military’s Western Command, as well the townships of Buthidaung and Thandwe townships.

The latest developments follow the AA’s March capture of Ramree township, which shares Maday Island with Kyaukphyu township. 

A resident who has closely watched the progress of Chinese projects in the region told RFA at the time that the AA had assumed control of most of the areas within the Kyaukphyu SEZ and said the ethnic army would likely have a say on how Chinese development proceeds.

Protecting Chinese interests

Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia analyst at the National War College in Washington – who writes commentaries regularly for RFA – said that despite assurances to Beijing by both the military and the AA that they would protect its interests in Myanmar, China’s decision to deploy workers and technicians to the Kyaukphyu SEZ is “putting [them] in harm’s way.”

“They're both giving assurances for the protection of Chinese interests, but they're still very much in competition over the control of Kyaukphyu,” he said, noting that “fighting has increased” around the township seat in recent weeks.

“Right now, the Arakan Army is in fairly solid control of most of northern Rakhine … [and] is going to have to move on Kyaukphyu at some point,” he added.

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A boy runs barefoot as he plays in front of a clinic which was donated by China's oil pipeline project on Maday island, Kyaukphyu township, Rakhine state, Myanmar October 7, 2015. (Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)

China has said it wants to play a “constructive role” in stabilizing the situation in Rakhine as soon as possible, but observers say Beijing is likely motivated by concerns for Chinese development projects in the state, which also include gas and oil pipelines that cross from Rakhine to China’s Yunnan province.

While the junta is believed to have asked Beijing to mediate as it continues to lose ground in the state, it’s unclear whether China has enough influence over the AA to end the conflict.

Translated by Kalyar Lwin. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.

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