Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Myanmar’s northeast: China’s version of Crimea?

Myanmar’s northeast: China’s version of Crimea?

YANGON—Reports are circulating that Chinese authorities proposed to the Myanmar government before the end of last year that Wa soldiers be assigned to the Kyaukphyu-Kunming oil pipeline project to take care of security.

The source was reportedly someone who monitors military affairs near the China-Myanmar border area. But the report, which has not been confirmed, also said that the Myanmar government refused the Chinese proposal.

The Kyaukphyu-Kunming gas pipeline passes through central Myanmar and is connected to Kunming in China. It is still too early to say whether the project will be a stable investment. The project was announced despite widespread public opposition. Due to a strong campaign against the project, conflicts and disagreements related to the construction of the gas pipeline are now occurring between the company and local residents.

Battles are now taking place along northern Shan State, through which the pipeline is expected to pass while extending the military’s strength.

The Chinese authorities, of course, do not want to see any more unrest about the pipeline, which will directly support Chinese interests. That is why, according to political analysts, China thought that soldiers from the Wa Solidarity Party, which is strongly influenced by the China, would be useful for maintaining pipeline security.

Based on the mutual understanding between Myanmar and China, the Chinese authorities pledged that Wa ethnic leaders would participate in talks and sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement, according to someone who monitors military affairs.

Despite all the instability, the gas pipeline project is not the only major infrastructure project China is pushing in Myanmar. Kyaukphyu-Kunming is only one project in the Chinese development strategy. As a second phase, China is striving to build the Kyaukphyu-Kunming railroad project. That is why the two countries have signed a Memorandum of Understanding-MoU.

On the other hand, the future of the Wa nationals is worrisome because the Wa are generally understood to be under Chinese influence. The United Wa State Army (UWSA), one of the most powerful armies among the ethnic armed groups, is now receiving Chinese aid.

Although the two sides have denied any such financial support, research has confirmed that it happened.

Some Chinese authorities met with the Wa leaders in Kunming of China last December. During a politburo meeting of the Wa Solidarity Party held earlier this year, party leaders born in Myanmar had been substituted for Chinese leaders.

Crimea crisis of Russia-Ukraine

Although there are many differences between the two situations, there has been widespread concern that the current Russia-Ukraine crisis offers a hint of what might be going on with the Myanmar-Wa affair.

The Crimean region was situated in Russian territory before Ukraine gained her independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. As Ukraine gained independence, the Crimean region fell under its influence. Ukraine continued allowing Russian navy troops from the Black Sea to be stationed in the Crimean region. But Crimea did not become a political firecracker while Ukraine and Russia were still on good terms.

However, when a popular revolt toppled President Viktor Yanukovych with Russia’s support, the American Central Intelligence Agency systematically arranged a plan to expose unpleasant aspects of the situation. Russia’s response was to occupy the Crimean region. Crimea, where Russian language is widely spoken, has now voted in a referendum to rejoin Russia.

Myanmar-China “Wa” issue

The situation of the Wa autonomous region is by no means identical to that of Crimea. But only those who speak Chinese live in the Wa autonomous region. The majority of residents are Chinese and only Chinese currency is used in the Wa autonomous region. In some matters, Wa leaders follow the directives of Chinese authorities. The Wa fully require China’s help. Myanmar-China relations are seen as Paukphaw (relatives). At a time when Myanmar and China are improving their relations, the situation in Wa region is raising questions. At present, Wa people have a desire to be recognised as an autonomous state and are demanding just that.

“Russia wants Crimea and China wants Wa, too,” said writer Htet Myet. 

“It is too complicated for Wa region to make comparisons with Ukraine -except to say it gives China another area of leverage and power,” said journalist Tom Fawthrop, who is familiar with Southeast Asian affairs.

A new Chinese strategy appears to be centering on Myanmar.

String of Pearls strategy

In 2000, Chinese discovered a new strategy to prepare itself for the challenges of international politics, economy and security that lay ahead. This “string of pearls” approach to energy security would help the People’s Republic to gain influence over other regions in the world. Myanmar is in a strategic position for China to apply this strategy. Given that it has yet to control the South China Sea, it is in China’s interest to seek access to the Indian Ocean by crossing Myanmar’s inland. If China can secure such an inland passage, its commodity transport routes to Africa will be shortened via the South China Sea by crossing the Malacca Strait. 

Part of the string of pearls strategy is aimed at the United States: knowing the U.S. appears incapable of securing future energy security, it is advantageous to control the Indian Ocean. Under this strategy, China intends to control all water territory up to the Persian Gulf and will build ports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. Myanmar thus becomes a key location for China as its transition point between maritime and inland energy routes. 

Kyaukphyu becomes an important port in the string of pearls strategy. Oil and gas can be transported from offshore blocks in Myanmar. The Kyaukphyu-Kunming gas pipeline was built crossing the inland of Myanmar. An express railroad was also prepared. This project becomes the opening step in the string of pearls strategy. 

Moreover, Kokokyun and Zardatgyi islands become the best places for China to station its navy troops under the string of pearls strategy.

Express railways, and sustainability of the Union

Recent news has emerged that Myanmar’s Ministry of Rail Transportation is re-assessing surveys conducted by China for a railway project to connect Kyaukphyu and Kunming. China is to bear most of the cost for the project, which will be a 50-year Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) project. This is China’s main project passing through Myanmar. 

The oil and natural gas pipeline is an initiative for the railway project. Once the project is launched, Myanmar states such as Rakhine and Shan, as well as regions such as Magway and Mandalay, are certain to suffer unfortunate side effects. 

“There is no doubt that China will be the main power using that railway, and that Chinese companies will dominate the economic zone that's under construction at Kyaukphyu,” said Bertil Lintner, a Swedish journalist and a Myanmar affairs expert.

The worst impact appears to be that Myanmar’s sovereignty and the sustainability of its “Union” will be threatened. 

Currently, there is no doubt that China has gained a foothold in the country, with projects scattered across Myanmar. Likewise, Chinese nationals and business people have penetrated deep into the country, through Shan State and even bypassing Mandalay in central Myanmar.

So it’s sure to be a concern for the sustainability of the Union which will certainly lose its “East” door once the Kyaukphyu-Kunming railway project is launched.

“When we mainly focus on security affairs for the country’s ‘West’ door, this only creates a situation where the country has no door at the east. The 50-year BOT project, which will be financed by China, is a big threat to Myanmar’s national security,” said Than Htut Aung, the CEO of Eleven Media Group.

“After a detailed analysis, it’s very doubtful that those who accepted this project and are trying to implement it are real citizens of Myanmar. We all should object to the project, which is unpatriotic.”

Writer Than Soe Naing argued that the government should reconsider all Chinese megaprojects at the moment—including the Kyaukphyu-Kunming railway project.

“They must be reconsidered, given the current climate of ‘worries’ and ‘emotions’ for the country's national affairs. Though a road construction is good in other ways, for the time being we can’t view it optimistically. Though the former government had worked for the sake of better transportation, their purpose seemed to be strategic rather than economic when reviewed. This project should be suspended for now,” said Than Soe Naing.

Even if the project is acceptable on economic grounds alone, said writer Htet Myet, Myanmar should still be wary because China may well have another agenda for the project.

In this context, it is useful to examine the history of Myanmar-China relations. After Burma’s independence from British Rule, China’s People’s Liberation Army once invaded the country. Despite China’s policy of not interfering with Myanmar’s domestic affairs, Chinese troops invaded the country in 1960 on the pretext that it was simply trying to attack fleeing Kuomintang troops. China invaded again in early 1968 after communal violence against the Chinese community throughout the country.

“Not only with China, we should also consider our national economy, healthcare, culture and security affairs in deciding how we should cooperate with other countries,” said economist Dr Aung Ko Ko.

The example of Laos

China’s influence over Myanmar has lasted more than a decade. Chinese manipulation of other Southeast Asian countries, especially by the military sector, has lasted even longer. In all this time, questions have been raised about China’s influence over Myanmar and Laos’s sovereignty.

“Whenever the Lao PDR needs to host a major international event they turned to the Chinese government to finance and build –first they built the new sports stadium for the hosting of the ASEAN games. In 2012 China built the ASEM conference centre and residential complex. Meanwhile a new Chinatown is springing up in part of the capital Vientiane,” said journalist Tom Fawthrop.

Moreover, there is the plan to build a hugely expensive Hi-speed train connecting Kunming- Vientiane will bring an ever greater influx of Chinese establishing themselves as immigrants –both legal and illegal- and threatening the survival of the Lao nations and its patchwork of  more than 50 different ethnic groups, Fawthrop added. 

“In the area of the Golden Triangle, the Lao communist government has virtually ceded all control over 16,000 hectares of land to Chinese tycoon Chao Wei and his King Romans Group. A similar pattern has been at work in Myanmar with China dominating extractive industries and hydropower dam construction,” he said.

Chinese projects under dispute

According to the history of Myanmar-China bilateral relations, there has been much give and take. The government that took office after Myanmar gained independence worried about the invasion of China. The military dictatorships after the 1988 uprising, by contrast, totally relied on China, took out loans, and signed agreements.

During the time of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) governments, Myanmar took Chinese assistance and with no concern of transparency surrounding any of the projects involved.

Therefore, every agreement signed with the Chinese has been biased and unfair.

Currently, the Chinese government is mainly emphasizing five megaprojects in Myanmar. They are the Letpadaungtaung copper mine, the Myitsone dam, the Tarpane hydropower project, the Kyauk Phyu-Kumming oil pipeline and the Takhaung nickel mine.

Among these projects, the Myitsone dam was suspended by President Thein Sein due to strong opposition from the public. The Kyaukphyu-Kunming oil pipeline project is finished, and the Letpadaungtaung project—although opposed by the public—has been allowed to continue.

“Many of these controversial projects clearly offer many benefits to China, but what does Myanmar lose more than it gains from such environmentally destructive dams and toxic mining projects? The benefits appear to be lopsided in China's favour,” said Fawthrop.

“If we are dependent on China, they will use us. It’s like what the doctor will be like if the patient has a stomach pain. We have to do whatever we can to avoid stomach pain if we don’t want the doctor to look at it,” said Dr Aung Ko Ko. 

Hla Shwe, a student leader from the 1962 generation, said that not enough is known about what kind of agreements have been made between the two countries.

“Some agreements have not been publicly announced, and the people are always the last to know. We have to examine each one of them, on a case-by-case basis, for the benefit of the country. It is the government’s duty to look at them from a national security perspective,” said Hla Shwe.

People who examine the projects from a national security perspective say the Kyaukphyu-Kumming railroad should not be allowed.

Normally, when the government has approved a project after looking only at the economical benefits, subsequent problems have been difficult to anticipate.

“In the midst of the Rakhine State and Muslim conflicts happening in Myanmar, the oil and gas project is finished. Now, we can’t allow the construction of the railroad to be completed while we’re focused on amending the constitution and preparing for the 2015 election. We have to look at all aspects,” said EMG CEO Than Htut Aung.

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