Since 2010, China has been casting its eyes on Myanmar’s rich natural resources for commercial exploitation.
The Chinese “project of the century” — the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is a transcontinental network of roads, railways and ports, covering dams, mines and pipelines is causing major environmental deterioration in Myanmar. The BRI has profound consequences, involving soil contamination and erosion, air pollution, water pollution, habitat and wildlife loss. Some projects have been stalled due to local opposition, however it won’t be for long before China resumes these projects. Local activists in few instances have also been arrested and suppressed by the central government of Myanmar.
Myanmar, also known as Suvarnabhumi in Sanskrit (Golden Land), has been famous for its natural resources since ancient times. The raw materials include oil, gas, minerals, timber, forest products and hydropower potential. China since 2010 has been casting its eyes on Myanmar’s rich natural resources for commercial exploitation. The issues of Myitsone dam project, Letpadaung copper mine project and Kyaukpyu port in Myanmar have been elaborated in detail below, highlighting China’s continuous defence of its wrongdoings in Naypyidaw.
The construction of a huge hydroelectric dam at Myitsone, Myanmar, by a state-owned Chinese company began in 2009. Myitsone is a geographically strategic location where two rivers N’mai Hka and Mali Hka converge to form the Irrawaddy, the largest waterway in Myanmar. The Chinese plan was to tap Myanmar’s vast hydro resources from Irrawaddy and Salween. The $3.6 billion dam project instead of benefitting Myanmar which was electricity deprived, will export 90% of the electricity to China.
A report by China Power Investment Corporation (covering 80% of the project cost) highlighted the possibilities of the disruption of river flow, disappearance of a migratory fish species and flooding of 26,238 hectares of rainforests. They did not plan to make the report public, however, against their will a copy of it got leaked to environmentalists and opponents of the dam, thereby stirring protests in 2011.
People gathered in masses in a park in Myitkyina township in Kachin state calling for a complete halt to the Myitsone project. One of the protest leaders, U Sar Chi, said “…that dam is not for us. We support the free flow of the Ayeyarwady. We can’t accept implementing the project without the people’s will.”
In a successful win for civil society groups, the Myanmar government suspended the project in September 2011. However, Beijing has frequently pressurised the Kachin leaders for the resumption of the Myitsone dam project as it is essential to implement Xi’s BRI. Despite, Xi’s visit in early 2020 to Myanmar, China couldn’t succeed in reviving the project. However, Aung San Suu Kyi since becoming the defacto government in 2015 has spoken in favour of the project reversing her previous stance of opposing the dam when she was in the opposition party.
Chinese company, Wanbao Mining Copper Ltd in 2011 formed a partnership with Myanmar’s military associated Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited to take control of the operations of Leptadaung copper mine.
However, the expansion of the mine involved the unlawful confiscation of thousands of acres of farmers’ land. Provisions were made to compensate the farmers in part with 1,900 acres of vacant land from nearby villages, howbeit the new plots of land handed to them were infertile and located far from their villages.
The local residents staged protests in 2011 but it was met with police brutality. The standoff escalated in 2012 when the police used grenades to disperse protests causing chemical burns to a large crowd of people.
Amid these protests the project was eventually suspended and an investigation committee was led by the then opposition leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The report acknowledged the non-conduct of environment and social assessment, nevertheless advised to continue the project on economic grounds.
In 2017, Amnesty International in a report stated that the project was “plagued by human rights abuses” and urged the Myanmar government to suspend the operations. One of the residents of Sete village, Yi Yi Win, in an interview with Frontier Myanmar stated that the people who lost their lands were still not being compensated and the waste overspill from the mine had completed destroyed the remaining fields.
Kyaukpyu a coastal town along the Bay of Bengal in Myanmar is valuable to China for strategic and economic reasons. This town is the terminal point of China’s $1.5 billion oil pipeline and a parallel natural gas pipeline running till the China’s Yunnan province.
China National Petroleum Corporation and Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, state owned firms constructed these pipelines between 2010 and 2015. The gas pipeline entered operation in 2013 capable of sending 12 billion cubic meters of gas to China annually, and the oil pipeline finally entered operation in 2017 capable of carrying roughly 22 million barrels of oil annually. Thus providing China with an alternative route for energy imports from the Middle East, thereby avoiding the chokepoint of Malacca Strait pipeline.
Furthermore, in 2018 China International Trust and Investment Corporation (CITIC) leading a consortium of six companies struck a framework agreement with Myanmar on building the Kyaukpyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ). In the same year, Myanmar signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with China to establish the China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). This 1,700 km long corridor connects China’s Yunnan province to Myanmar’s major economic centers from Mandalay in central Myanmar, to Yangon in south and the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in west. Hence, the Kyaukpyu deep water port is connected to China’s larger Belt and Road Initiative in Myanmar. Yet again arousing fears of Chinese unobstructed economic leverage over Myanmar. The Myanmar government’s 30 percent stake in the project is around $2.2 billion, if it occupies 50 percent stake then it would amount to almost 5% of Myanmar’s GDP, thereby forcing it to rely on Chinese loans. Another crucial concern to the activists was the human rights violations caused during project implementation such as forced relocation of more than 20,000 Rakhine residents and dictated militarisation.
The governments of small countries like Myanmar are thirsty for investments despite instances of dispossession, exploitation of natural resources and environmental damage by Beijing’s BRI project. A study ‘Greening the Belt and Road Initiative’ by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) revealed that the BRI corridor will affect around 265 threatened species, 1,739 important bird areas and 46 biodiversity hotspots. Hydropower projects backed by China along the Mekong river running through Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam is said to highly disrupt the river flow and create a loss of about one million tons of fish every year. Deforestation in areas such as the Pan Borneo Highway that traverses Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei will make it susceptible to landslides, floods, and other disaster related concerns.
China’s BRI, one of the largest infrastructure undertakings will bring unprecedented economic and environmental shifts. The impact of the project on environment has received negligible attention. The environmental concerns are legitimate and there is very less precedence for analysing and planning the environmental impacts of massive projects at the scale of BRI. Hence, the governments despite their quest for investment must take decisions keeping social and environmental impacts in mind before it gets too late to act.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.