As local residents question Belt and Road impacts, China and Myanmar remain silent

Myanmar's State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi.Photo: Claude Truong-Ngoc/Wikimedia Commons

China is pushing two of its Belt and Road development projects in Myanmar without addressing local communities’ social and environmental concerns.

By Skylar Lindsay

Chinese investment in projects for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is changing the homes, economies, and environments of people across Myanmar, often in conflict zones. In some cases, those affected by the projects are calling for the government to stop or alter Chinese-backed projects due to concerns about social and environmental costs. At a minimum, local residents have questions about whether they’ll see the benefits of the developments.

The Chinese and Myanmar governments, for the most part, haven’t directly addressed these concerns.

In the case of the proposed Myitsone dam in Kachin State, the Chinese government has pushed local communities to accept the project, despite the fact that most of the benefits will go to China. Late last month, a team of Chinese experts spoke in the state’s parliament in an attempt to convince Kachin lawmakers to come out in favour of the dam. The government in Myanmar has encouraged those opposed to the project to reconsider their position.

A mother and child walk near the Irrawaddy River in an area that will be affected by the Myitsone Dam.
Photo: International Rivers

Local communities in Rakhine State have also struggled to voice their concerns over the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ). China is pushing the Myanmar government to advance this crucial piece of the BRI but unlike in Kachin, Beijing isn’t facilitating any sort of peace process around the conflicts in the area. Instead, China is shielding Myanmar from international accountability and working to prevent Kyaukphyu from becoming “another Myitsone” by minimising public opposition.

“Chinese investors, Chinese government, and Chinese companies should not negotiate only with the Myanmar government. They have to care for and consider all communities’ desires, wants and demands,” one leader of a community-based organisation in Kyaukphyu told ASEAN Today. “They should respect the communities’ rights.”

China has submitted proposals to Myanmar’s government to develop 38 projects across the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC).

As Myanmar’s government considers reviving Myitsone dam, communities’ concerns remain

The 6,000 MW Myitsone dam will cost a reported US$3.6 billion and could stand 152 meters tall when completed. The project was originally suspended in 2011 due to public opposition over its possible impacts on local ecosystems and disruption to the Irrawaddy River, a vital water source in the region.

By altering the water resources across the river basin, the dam could impact the health and livelihoods of 34 million people. The river’s delta provides 60% of the country’s rice production. 

Source: Irrawaddy

Myitsone is also not a stand-alone project. According to the Kachin Development Network Group, it’s part of a plan for at least seven Chinese-funded dams in the area. This hydropower cascade would produce 17,160 MW, five times the total installed hydropower capacity for all of Myanmar. The central government plans to sell most of the power to China. 

Civil society groups are concerned that Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) government are more motivated by the need to appease Beijing than promoting equitable development in the country.

As Myanmar and China move to revive the dam, it appears that neither government has addressed the outstanding concerns that led to the project’s cancellation. The only thing that has changed is the politics; China now has a more direct role in the peace process with ethnic armed groups in the area and has even offered to pay Kachin refugees to return to their homes in the conflict zone. 

The new push to advance Myitsone has already met strong opposition. As much as 85% of Myanmar’s population still opposes the dam. A group of academics, writers, environmentalists, and Kachin leaders launched a new anti-Myitsone coalition in late March.

“The Kachin community together with people from along Ayeyarwady [Irrawaddy] River as well as a majority of technical experts and active citizens are very worried for the position of the NLD,” Khon Ja, coordinator for Kachin Peace Network, a civil society organisation, told ASEAN Today. “Many NLD members are also with us. If the government officially declares the continuation of the dam, there will be a lot of people’s movements in many places [sic].”

The Myanmar government has allegedly harassed leaders of anti-dam protests. In one recent case, protest organiser Ja Hkawn was charged for using loudspeakers and distributing headbands at a rally.

The dam also poses risks for the peace process in Kachin. The Chinese government is pressuring leaders of the Kachin Baptist community, a focal point of life in Kachin state, to back the dam.

“They think that if we sign the peace agreement, their investment will be secured in our state,” Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) president Rev. Hkalam Samson said. “But our aims [as an ethnic group] are focused on achieving self-determination and equal rights in our state.”

Hoping to avoid controversy, China pushes an SEZ in Rakhine despite backlash

In Kyaukphyu, local residents and civil society groups have been raising concerns about the SEZ’s environmental impacts, land rights issues, and compensation since 2015. Some local business owners support the project because it could bring new opportunities, but many local residents are concerned that they will lose their livelihoods.

Rakhine leaders also object to the idea of losing control of their natural resources, a key demand in their movement to achieve equality and self-determination for the historically marginalized Rakhine community.

In 2018, fishermen organised a demonstration to call attention to the potential impacts of the project, but neither government responded.

“Over 170 fishermen use the water to catch fish, but they will lose their livelihoods,” Tun Kyi, a representative of the Kyaukphyu Rural Development Association, told ASEAN Today. “If they lose their livelihoods, they lose education for their kids, have social issues, and face problems with technology because of the projects.”

A fisherman fishes alone in Rakhine State.
Photo: Min Zaw Mra

The SEZ will also affect natural resource rights. Over 4,000 acres have been targeted for the SEZ site but the government has allegedly said it will only compensate landholders for 1,700 acres. The government considers the rest of the land to be “vacant, fallow, and virgin,” under Myanmar’s land laws. This means that the government doesn’t recognise the land’s current use or ownership.

Tun Kyi and others maintain that there is no vacant or fallow land in Kyaukphyu. Only half of Myanmar’s landholders have formal titles for their property, holding it instead under customary land tenure.

Local communities have struggled to gain the same public traction as those near the Myitsone site for two reasons: first, the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims and ongoing conflict with the Arakan Army have eclipsed all other regional events and reduced the area’s accessibility to outside observers. English-language media covers Kyaukphyu only as part of BRI, primarily from a bird’s eye view 

Secondly, communities have been unable to win over powerful allies in Myanmar’s civil society. This may be because of the weight associated with taking a stance on any issue that will define Rakhine’s future. When public figures or organisations invoke language about the issues facing Rakhine people, they risk being perceived as complicit in the political and social systems that have allowed ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. 

Many members of the Rakhine community and their supporters have spread hate speech against the Rohingya, often on social media; the vision of a prosperous and self-governing Rakhine is often conflated with or misused to further the marginalization and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.

The Kyaukphyu SEZ is a key piece of the BRI; it may someday connect China to the Bay of Bengal via the proposed Kunming-Kyaukphyu railway. The Chinese government’s approach has been to push on with the Kyaukphyu SEZ before the conflicts in the area are resolved and without addressing the concerns of local communities. 

With Myitsone, Beijing and Myanmar’s government both saw their plans derailed by public opposition to the dam. China now wants to advance the SEZ in Rakhine before civil society and local communities can organise on the scale of Myitsone, and the NLD government appears eager to please.