Myanmar's Ethnic Political Parties See Little Local Benefit From China-Backed Projects

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myanmar-ethnic-parties-meeting-yangon-jan21-2020.jpg Representatives from Myanmar's ethnic political parties attend a workshop to discuss the country peace process and China's influence, in Yangon, Jan. 21, 2020.
RFA video screenshot

Some of Myanmar’s ethnic political parties on Wednesday expressed concern over potential negative impacts of China’s planned multibillion-dollar mega-projects in their regions, days after the two countries’ leaders signed more than 30 memorandums of understanding regarding the deals.

Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed 33 MoUs for Chinese-backed projects in the Southeast Asia country, many of which fall under the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), on Jan. 18, the second day of the Xi’s two-day state visit to Myanmar.

Among the deals signed was a concession and shareholders agreement on the U.S. $1.3 billion-dollar Kyaukphyu deep-sea port and economic zone in Rakhine state, a letter of intent for a new urban development in the commercial hub Yangon, an MoU on local cooperation under the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) between southwest China and Myanmar’s Mandalay region, and feasibility studies for high-speed rail links and expressways, according to the official Global New Light of Myanmar.

A signature policy of Xi’s, the multitrillion-dollar BRI infrastructure investment and lending program that will link China with Asia, Africa, and Europe entails the building of border economic cooperation zones in Myanmar’s war-torn Shan and Kachin states.

It also includes the CMEC, a road and rail transportation route running from southwest China’s Yunnan province through the Myanmar border trading town of Muse and on to Mandalay and Kyaukphyu in Rakhine state where a Special Economic Zone will be built as a strategic gateway to the Indian Ocean.

Many ethnic minority groups and their respective political parties harbor deep suspicions over Beijing’s growing influence in Myanmar, believing that they will not see any benefits from the BRI and other China-backed projects and that China will continue to have ties to rebel armies fighting government forces in border areas.

Rakhine lawmaker Oo Hla Saw, who represents Mrauk-U in Myanmar’s lower house of parliament and is a member of the Arakan National Party, said most ethnic Rakhines in the state object to the Chinese projects because they believe they will not benefit from them.

“Observing from past experience, most Rakhine people don’t like Chinese projects very much,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service during a Jan. 20-21 workshop in Yangon sponsored by the Federal Democratic Force during which various ethnic political parties discussed the country’s peace process.

“There are many ‘fouls’ by the Chinese side,” he said. “The top managers of Chinese mega-projects don’t value the voice of local people, and they are not concerned about affecting the environment.”

“They only come here to implement their projects,” Oo Hla Saw said. “They don’t provide many job opportunities for local people either.”

‘Only China’s interests’

Kun Gaung Aung Kham, chairman of the Kachin Democratic Party, echoed the sentiment.

“Mainly, the Chinese only care about their own interests,” he said. “They will try to implement anything they think can benefit them.”

“They will engage with any parties, whether the Myanmar government or insurgent groups,” he added, referring to ethnic armed organizations some of which are engaged in hostilities with Myanmar forces in their regions.

Beijing has been trying to broker cease-fire agreements between the Myanmar military and rebel ethnic armies engaged in armed conflict along the countries’ shared border, viewing the clashes and displacement of tens of thousands of civilians as threats to the stability needed to ensure the smooth completion of the BRI projects.

At a meeting with military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing during his recent visit, Xi vowed that China would not supply arms and ammunition to ethnic armies operating along the border area.

Kun Gaung Aung Kham meanwhile suggested that Myanmar allow other countries to engage in its internal peace process to prevent China from getting the upper hand.

“Preferably, in addition to China’s influence, we should let other powers like the U.S., EU, or Japan get involve in the peace process,” he said. “Otherwise, the peace process dominated by China alone might not be long-lasting. The agreement will be one-sided and favorable only to China’s interests.”

Salai Shein Tun, secretary of the Chin League for Democracy, said that China’s influence in Myanmar’s peace process will continue to grow.

“Of course, China will become more influential in Myanmar’s peace process,” he said, adding that Beijing has been supporting the northern ethnic groups with arms behind the scene.

“The Myanmar military recently captured an insurgent camp, and all the weapons they seized were Chinese made, so there is evidence of China’s support,” he said. “But there will be continued political engagement as well.”

Representatives from nearly 40 political parties attended the two-day event and called on the Union Election Commission to meet with them before the 2020 elections scheduled for later this year.

They also called on the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government to listen to the voices of the ethnic parties in the country’s ongoing peace process.

Reported by Aung Theinkha for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.


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