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Chinese companies investing in Myanmar have ‘a lot of work to do’ to convince public


Transparency must be improved and deep concerns addressed, says former presidential adviser Aung Tun Thet.
A raft of infrastructure deals have just been signed, including for a strategically important deep-sea port project.

Chinese companies need to improve transparency when they invest in Myanmar, a former presidential adviser in the Southeast Asian nation said, after the two sides signed a slew of infrastructure deals.

Deep public concerns in Myanmar, especially over Beijing’s intentions in the country, must also be addressed, Aung Tun Thet told the South China Morning Post.

“It’s very important that people understand, because what has happened in the past is people do not know what went on, and because they don’t know, then they get worried,” said the prominent economist in Myanmar and adviser to former president Thein Sein.

“They get worried not because they object to anything, they get worried because they don’t know what is going on,” he said. “I think a lot of work needs to be done to convince the general population … that it is for the good of the country and it’s good for the people.”

He was speaking after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s two-day visit to Myanmar on January 17 and 18, during which 33 deals were signed, many for infrastructure projects. They included railway, industrial and power projects and a deep-sea port development that will provide a link between China’s less developed southwest and the Indian Ocean.

But there was no progress on the controversial US$3.6 billion Myitsone dam project. The proposed dam – which predates Xi’s global infrastructure drive, the Belt and Road Initiative – was suspended nearly a decade ago because of strong public opposition over its cost and potential environmental damage.

Critics of the belt and road plan – which spans Asia, Europe, Africa and beyond – often cite the Myitsone dam project as an example of the lack of transparency and sustainability of some of the Chinese projects. There are also concerns that Chinese companies are the sole beneficiaries of the initiative.

During his visit, Xi joined Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s state counsellor, to oversee the signing of a final deal for the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone along the coast of the Bay of Bengal, in restive Rakhine state – one of the country’s poorest regions.

Neither side released details of the latest agreement, but it is likely to involve road and railway-building schemes and to tie in with the 793km (493-mile) oil and gas pipeline from Kyaukphyu to Kunming that began supplying China in 2013.

Aung Tun Thet said part of the plan was to use some of the oil and gas to generate power for locals so they see that “the gas and oil is not only going to benefit the Chinese in Kunming or Yunnan, but also benefits Kyaukphyu”.

The port deal highlights Myanmar’s strategic importance in China’s geopolitical ambitions. Once finished, it would mean oil imported from the Middle East and Africa could be directly sent to China through the Kyaukphyu pipeline, while Chinese goods could be shipped to the Middle East, Europe and Africa through the port rather than via the Strait of Malacca.

Both sides hailed a “new era” in bilateral relations during Xi’s visit, with Beijing promising to support Myanmar’s peace process and its approach to the Rohingya Muslim minority situation. Naypyidaw meanwhile said it would stand firm with Beijing on its core interests including Taiwan and Xinjiang, over which it faces a growing backlash for its hardline policies.

Aung Tun Thet, who is also chief coordinator of Myanmar’s government body handling the Rohingya crisis, said discussions were under way with China’s Red Cross Society to help relocate refugees. More than 700,000 Rohingya fled from Rakhine state to neighbouring Bangladesh during a military crackdown in 2017 that the UN has said was conducted with genocidal intent.

On Thursday, the International Court of Justice ruled that Myanmar had “caused irreparable damage to the rights of the Rohingya”, and ordered it to protect them from persecution and atrocities, refrain from destroying evidence and report back to the court.

Observers have suggested that growing international pressure could push Myanmar and Suu Kyi – the former democracy activist who became the country’s civilian leader – further into Beijing’s embrace.

But it is a delicate balancing act for a country that neighbours both China and India.

Aung Tun Thet said Myanmar did not want to choose a side, but to remain on good terms with all countries.

“It is not a case of choice. We, since independence, have had good relations with both countries, India and China,” he said. “We want to have friendly relationships with everyone, but at the end of the day, the most important thing is the national interest of Myanmar.”

Source: South China Morning Post

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