Planned China Railway Raises Fears of Land Grabs in Myanmar

myanmar-mandalay-railway-may19-2019.jpg A train waits for vendors to clear the tracks as it makes its way slowly past at a railway bazaar near Tha Ye Zay railway station in Mandalay in central Myanmar, May 19, 2019.

Residents of central Myanmar's Mandalay region said Thursday that they are increasingly fearful of forced property and farmland confiscations in areas slated for the construction of a high-speed railway running from Kunming in southwestern China to their city under the massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Two state-owned companies — Myanmar Railways and China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group Co. Ltd. — signed a memorandum of understanding a year ago to conduct a feasibility study for a stretch of railway from Mandalay to Muse in Myanmar's northern Shan state, along the longer route. The overall project is a key part of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) under the BRI, and is expected to boost trade between the two countries.

The CMEC entails a central road and rail transport infrastructure from southwestern China’s Yunnan province through Muse and Mandalay to the town of Khaukphyu in western Myanmar's Rakhine state, where a major seaport and special economic zone are slated for construction.

Government officials have been holding the public forums to inform residents of villages and towns along the route of the planned project about the latest developments and proposals concerning the rail line that will connect the economic hubs of Mandalay and Muse, which sits on the Myanmar-China border.

Area villagers who attended a public forum on an environmental assessment of the railway project in Mandalay’s Patheingyi township voiced concerns over losing their homes and farmland to the rail line to be built by both China and Myanmar.

“We still don’t know how much we would lose and in which areas during the implementation of this project,” said a resident of Patheingyi township who attended the public forum but declined to give his name.

“I think many valuable farmlands will be lost to this project,” he said.

Another resident, Kyaw Thu, expressed concern that his house would be included in the planned construction area and be removed after land markers were posted near the building.

A government field assessment of the project indicates that most local residents are primarily interested in receiving market-value compensation for homes and property they would have to forfeit.

An official from Myanmar’s Ministry of Transport and Communications said the amount of compensation would be determined by a committee created specifically for that purpose.

“We’ve got a committee to decide how much will be paid as compensation for land in Patheingyi,” he said.

Kyaw Swa Tint, a consultant with Evergreen Tech Environmental Service and Training, said experts are working on an environmental feasibility study of the planned railway.

“We will submit the feasibility and environmental assessment report to the state,” he said. “The government will review the data and decide if the project should be implemented or not.”

Reviews and reports

As part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature multitrillion-dollar infrastructure investment and lending program designed to link China with Asia, Africa, and Europe, the Muse-Mandalay stretch of the railway project in Myanmar will cost nearly U.S. $9 billion, according to Ba Myint, the managing director of Myanmar Railways, and it could be implemented in as little as two years.

The Myanmar government’s economic committee approved the railway project in October 2018 and formed a China-Myanmar joint committee to implement it.

China submitted a feasibility report on the railway project to Thant Sin Maung, Myanmar’s minister for transport and communications, during the second Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing in late April, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported.

Myanmar Railways experts then began reviewing the report and making decisions about bridges, tunnels and rail stations.

A trip between Mandalay and Muse along the proposed 431-kilomater (268-mile) long railway is expected to take about three hours. Traveling that route by car currently takes more than eight hours.

“This railway will make traveling from Mandalay to Muse a day trip,” said Htay Hlaing, deputy general manager of Myanmar Railways. “The trains will run at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour. It could, of course, impact the highway bus companies a bit.”

Under the new project, tracks along an existing line that extends from Mandalay to the town of Lashio in northern Shan state will be dismantled and replaced.

Final decisions on the specific details of the railway’s construction are expected to be made by the end of 2019, according to The Irrawaddy.

The Muse-Mandalay railway also will be part of the southern corridor of the Trans-Asian Railway Network, a project implemented by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific to provide an integrated freight railway network across Asia and Europe.

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

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