The One Belt One Road (OBOR), the signature foreign policy and infrastructural development project of Chinese President Xi Jinping, has come knocking loudly at Myanmar's doorstep. Last week, President Xi's coming-out party for the trillion-dollar initiative—which seeks to combine 'soft connectivity' in form of trade promotion, financial integration, and cultural and policy exchange with 'hard connectivity' via a network of highways, railroads, and maritime routes along the old Silk Road to Europe—drew in representatives from over 200 countries and international organizations as well as 29 world leaders, including State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The Belt and Road Forum resulted in a joint communiqué opposing protectionism, and five agreements signed between China and Myanmar, including a memorandum of understanding (MoU) that establishes a China-Myanmar Border Economic Cooperation Zone.
For China, the platform afforded by the OBOR is a perfect "face-saving solution" to failed Chinese-backed projects, including the stalled Myitsone Dam and Letpadaung Copper Mine, which have been a source of strain in bilateral relations. Indeed, Chinese backers have recently shifted from demanding compensation for cancelled or suspended projects to pushing for preferential access to other projects as indemnification. In the backdrop of an invigorated push for the OBOR, CITIC, China's largest and oldest state-owned financial conglomerate, pressed for preferential access to the strategically-important Kyaukphyu deep-sea port in Rakhine State, and is reportedly seeking a 70-85% stake in operations.
While growing economic interest in Myanmar from its most powerful neighbor and largest trading partner isn't new, the scale and institutionalization involved with the OBOR, especially given China's fraught record of investment in the country, demands another layer of caution and greater scrutiny from domestic stakeholders. The implications of the OBOR on the ongoing armed conflict, for one, is all the more pertinent as genuine progress in the peace process appears dubious, and as China's relentless pursuit to establish itself as the regional hegemon seems increasingly likely to impinge on more disputed ethnic areas. Worryingly, the economic cooperation MoU signed last week may lead to the establishment of, among others, a new economic zone in northern Shan State's Kokang region, which saw clashes between the Myanmar Army and Kokang-based Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) just earlier this month. The September 2016 clashes between the Myanmar Army and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) over the now suspended Hatgyi Dam, and the resulting displacement of over 5,000 people in Karen State, should serve as a cautionary example of the risks posed by natural resource extraction without a context of sustainable peace.
Examples of irresponsible development projects, foreign or otherwise, litter the country. Yet, there remains significant gaps in how private investors and the Myanmar Government have addressed long-standing criticisms from local populations. In late April 2017, residents in southern Shan State boycotted a meeting to discuss the suspended Chinese-backed Tigyit power plant, noting the lack of inclusivity in invitees to the meeting and the heavy environmental destruction that has already resulted from the plant's initial production. Criticisms follow the recently operational, decades-in-the-making Shwe gas and oil pipeline, with villagers describing government stonewalling during their attempts to negotiate more proportionate compensation for their compromised livelihoods.
The lack of transparency in development proposals and land compensation agreements, along with the lack of local benefit from the projects and the destruction of livelihoods without provision of adequate alternatives are consistent concerns. These issues can be addressed with resource-sharing, inclusive, meaningful, and regular consultation with local communities, and stronger legislation to protect land rights and ethnic rights in the context of federalism. Time and time again, experience has shown that proceeding with projects without consent and full participation of local communities is unsustainable. It's time that international stakeholders, and the Myanmar Government, recognizes this.
The international prominence of the OBOR and its associated economic enticements, coupled with Myanmar's financial indebtedness to, and political-economic reliance on, China, means that the Myanmar Government will be under immense pressure to agree to any proposals by China. With Europe largely absent, and geopolitical regional forces like India snubbing events like last week's Belt and Road Forum, it's crucial for Myanmar to take a more active approach in assessing its role in a project that may have more far-reaching consequences beyond development economics. Worryingly, as The Irrawaddy Editorial Board notes, there has been insufficient parliamentary and public discussion on the two projects related to the deep-sea port at Kyaukphyu—which risks pushing an estimated 20,000 people out of their homes and jeopardizes the livelihoods of the particularly vulnerable Rohingya and other minority communities. The Myanmar Government's cancellation of U.K.-based NGO Global Witness's screening of "Jade and the Generals" in Yangon last week sends a strong signal that public discussion of state-sponsored human rights abuse and misgovernance is forbidden. Going forward, with lives, livelihoods, and the future of Myanmar's regional role at stake, it's crucial that issues related to large-scale development are discussed and addressed with the full and meaningful participation of civil society and local communities in accordance to international standards such as the Pinheiro Principles and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country's name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term 'Myanmar' in acknowledgment that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of 'Myanmar' rather than 'Burma' without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten.