When Myanmar announced its seven-point economic relief plan to mitigate the economic impact of COVID-19 in late April, one item immediately raised eyebrows among China analysts in the country. The initiative’s third main objective is stated as “Easing the Impacts on Laborers and Workers”, and one of the ways the government intends to achieve this is putting laid-off laborers and returning migrants to work on “Implementation of Labor-Intensive Community Infrastructure Projects” before the end of this year.
At first glance, it seems a worthy goal, as it aims to benefit workers affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
However, with several megaprojects in the planning stages as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), experts are concerned that the COVID-19 Economic Relief Plan (CERP)’s emphasis on reviving the economy will see Myanmar push ahead with the implementation of BRI projects without properly assessing their risks in terms of conflict sensibility, potential for incurring unsustainable debt and commercial viability, among other criteria.
Adding to their worries, shortly after the plan was unveiled, Chinese Ambassador to Myanmar Chen Hai and Myanmar’s Deputy Minister for Planning, Finance and Industry U Set Aung met to discuss how to move forward on the development of China’s ambitious projects in Myanmar in the context of the CERP. The New Yangon City; Kyaukphyu Deep-Sea Port and Industrial Zone; and China-Myanmar Cross-Border Economic Cooperation Zone projects—all of which were agreed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Myanmar in January—were among those discussed at the meeting.
Furthermore, Xi expressed hope that Myanmar would speed up its cooperation with China on implementation of the infrastructure projects during a telephone conversation with Myanmar President U Win Myint in late May.
Since then, speculation has grown that the CERP’s third goal is tantamount to a green light for the projects.
However, The Irrawaddy learned this week from a senior official familiar with the matter that, so far, the infrastructure projects to be promoted under the CERP do not include any Chinese megaprojects.
The official confirmed to The Irrawaddy that BRI megaprojects are not among those listed in connection with the CERP, adding that there is no danger of the China-backed projects being rushed through or avoiding proper scrutiny.
“When it comes to choosing strategic infrastructure projects, they must already have been proposed but facing delays; they must be implemented by a reputable company with international experience; and the projects have to be commercially viable—not a burden on the country,” the official said.
The official added: “According to the criteria, BRI projects are not among those slated to be chosen.”
Based on the official’s comments, the three projects agreed during Xi’s visit—New Yangon City, the Kyaukphyu Deep-Sea Port and Industrial Zone, and the China-Myanmar Border Economic Cooperation Zones—seem far from meeting the criteria.
The Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in western Myanmar is expected to boost development in China’s landlocked Yunnan Province and provide China with direct access to the Indian Ocean, allowing its oil imports to bypass the Strait of Malacca.