Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to sign several memorandums of understanding for the implementation of planned multibillion-dollar projects under his signature Belt and Road Initiative in Myanmar during his two-day state visit to the Southeast Asian country to boost bilateral relations, China’s state media reported Friday.
Xi will meet with Myanmar President Win Myint, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and leaders from various political parties during his visit which ends Saturday.
Win Myint said Xi's visit — the first by a Chinese leader in nearly two decades — marked a “new era” of bilateral relations and would help promote the two countries' future ties.
Though Myanmar government officials have not yet announced the number of MoUs to be signed, reports by the Chinese media say the parties will ink agreements on five BRI projects, including the Kyaukphyu deep-sea port, a high-speed rail line connecting Kyaukphyu to southwest China’s Yunnan province, and the New Yangon city development project.
The U.S. $1.3 billion deep-sea port in Rakhine state is part of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), a subsection of the larger BRI. The CMEC comprises a high-speed railway and road network that will span roughly 1,000 miles from China's Kunming city through Myanmar’s major economic hubs and on to a Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone, home to the port project and to Chinese oil and gas pipelines. The CMEC ultimately will give China crucial access to the Indian Ocean.
Xi arrived in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw around 1 p.m. local time Friday and met briefly with Aung San Suu Kyi to discuss peaceful coexistence and the implementation of the BRI projects, according to statement released by the State Counselor’s Office.
He will attend other meetings on Saturday, including one with Min Aung Hlaing to discuss the prospect of increasing military relations, promoting stability in border areas, and boosting security measures in both countries, according to military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun.
Support from rebel armies
Some of Myanmar’s rebel armies welcomed Xi’s visit, while civil society groups in different regions demanded that he terminate the controversial Myitsone hydropower project in Kachin state and voiced strong opposition to the Kyaukphyu port project
The four members of the rebel Northern Alliance — the Arakan Army (AA), Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) — which are fighting government forces in Rakhine, Kachin, and northern Shan states, issued statements welcoming Xi’s visit.
All of them, except for the KIA, publicly stated that they support Chinese-funded projects.
The AA and TNLA along with the United Wa State Army (UWSA) — Myanmar’s largest ethnic force — agreed that the BRI project and the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor — a collection of infrastructure projects supporting connectivity between Myanmar and China — will be beneficial to local residents.
The statement issued by the UWSA said the BRI projects will improve Myanmar’s outdated economy, trade, and infrastructure.
TNLA spokesman Colonel Mei Eik Kyaw said the Chinese projects should focus on improving the lives of locals.
“Mainly, we believe that if these projects in northern Shan state succeed, the local people from this region will reap the benefits,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“But these projects should be genuinely beneficial to the local people,” he added. “Those who have lost land and property should receive fair compensation. The Chinese government doesn’t have the right to administer the region, It’s up to the Myanmar government to do it.”
Though the statement issued by the KIA and its political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), did not mention the BRI projects, it noted that bilateral agreements might help settle Kachin state's civil war and boost security in unstable border areas.
The groups also said that Xi should take into consideration the diverse opinions of different ethnic groups and organizations.
RFA was unable to reach the KIA or AA spokesman Khine Thukha for comment.
Opposition from NGOs
Kachin, Shan, and Rakhine civil society groups meanwhile issued statements of their own calling on the Chinese president to stop Chinese-funded projects in their respective areas.
Though Kachin civil society groups and the KIO have issued statements on their stances concerning the Myitsone Dam, it is difficult for them to demonstrate opposition to them, said Khon Ja of the Kachin Peace Network.
The previous military-backed government put the controversial hydropower project in Kachin state on hold in 2011 amid protests over its social and environmental impacts, much to Beijing’s dismay. The Chinese have lobbied the current government hard to allow it to resume.
“The Myitsone Dam project was not initiated by either the KIO or by the Kachin people,” Khon Ja said. “If ethnic armed groups protest against the Chinese projects, it will not bode well for their future.”
“Similarly, the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor is a state-run project, [so] whoever opposes it will be seen as opposing the state,” she added. “All in all, it is very difficult for us to oppose these projects.”
The Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) also released a statement on China-Myanmar economic cooperation in general, noting the likelihood of land confiscation for planned BRI projects.
SNLD spokesman Sai Leik said land along the route of the high-speed rail and road network to be built by the Chinese from the border area in northern Shan state to Mandalay would likely be confiscated form residents.
“There are uncertainties with regard to land confiscation, and the local people might find themselves in trouble under the new law on vacant land,” he said. “These are the concerns and problems that people are facing on the ground.”
The Vacant, Fallow, Virgin Lands Management Act took effect in March 2019 and requires those who occupy or use “vacant, fallow, or virgin land” to apply for a 30-year permit to use the land or face eviction and up to two years in prison.
Civil society groups have demanded that officials consult local residents before implementing Chinese infrastructure projects, instead of forging ahead with them based only on bilateral agreements.
They also want those implementing the projects to to demonstrate transparency, avoid centralized control of the projects, and prohibit developments that would detrimentally affect people’s livelihoods and rights.
China is Myanmar’s largest investor, with Chinese investment accounting for nearly U.S. $4.7 billion in 2018 and roughly U.S. $4.8 billion in 2019, according to Chinese figures.
China’s state-run CCTV reported that Chinese companies have signed agreements worth nearly U.S. $8 billion for new projects in the Southeast Asian country.
Reported by Thiha Tun and Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.