China-Myanmar High-speed Railway quietly back on track

The China-Myanmar high-speed railway project (aka Kunming-Kyaukphyu Railway) that was derailed by the Thein Sein government is quietly back on track under the National League for Democracy-led government. The memorandum of understanding (MoU) for the project was signed in April 2011, but the scheme was reportedly halted in July 2014. My interviews with former officials of Myanmar Railways and journalists have revealed that social opposition, financial feasibility, distribution of gains and national security were among the challenges that stopped the train.

“Time for Change” was the election motto of the NLD in the 2015 general elections. Although the direction of change may not be clear to everyone, the public generally expects that the new administration will uphold transparency and accountability in its governance. When the NLD took power in April 2016, it declared a review of MoUs signed between the previous government and international investors, most of them in the energy sector. Public resistance to projects like the Myitsone hydropower dam, Letpadaung copper mine, Dawei oil refinery, Thanlwin hydropower dams and China-Myanmar oil and gas pipelines resulted from a lack of public consultation and community consent, so the NLD’s measure to scrutinise foreign direct investment projects is commendable.

As time passes, however, it appears that the practice of the NLD government is not much different from that of previous administrations. In March, an MoU was signed for a feasibility study for the Mandalay-Tigyaing-Muse expressway and Kyaukphyu-Nay Pyi Taw highway projects. The route resembles the China-Myanmar railway. Last month, U Thaung Tun, minister of the Office of the Union Government, led a delegation to attend the Belt and Road summit in Hong Kong. In an interview with the South China Morning Post, he claimed that Myanmar would foster economic cooperation with China and that the railway connecting Ruili in Yunnan province with Mandalay “would start quite soon.” He also said the railway will extend to Yangon and Kyaukphyu, where the China-backed special economic zone and deep sea port project are located.

It is evident that Nay Pyi Taw and Beijing have been talking to materialise the China-Myanmar economic corridor. How much do voters know about the projects? Have the obstacles to the high-speed railway been addressed? There is every reason to support the railway project to create jobs and boost economic development in Myanmar. However, to ensure public participation in economic development, the NLD government should have informed consultations with the public, especially communities that will be affected by the project.

Even more disappointing, the China-Myanmar railway and highway are not exceptional examples of the current government’s lack of transparency. In the New Yangon City project that involves an area of land twice that of Singapore, the government consistently bypassed the public before signing an agreement with the Chinese investor on the development plan of the project. Since March 2017, members of the Yangon regional parliament, including Daw Sandar Min and U Kyaw Zeya, have asked the regional government for detailed proposals of the new city project for discussion, but to no avail.