China, Myanmar look into railway project linking Muse to Mandalay

  • State-owned companies to begin feasibility study, four years after high-speed project was shelved
  • Area is part of economic corridor connecting Yunnan province with key commercial centres in Myanmar

BEIJING: Two state-owned companies, China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group and Myanmar Railways, signed an agreement on Monday to begin the study on a proposed rail line from Muse to Mandalay.

Muse – a town in Myanmar’s northeastern Shan state that borders Yunnan province in southwest China – is the biggest land route for trade between the two nations, while railway service to central Mandalay could create a transport lifeline for the country’s north.

The route was first proposed under a high-speed railway deal signed in 2011, but the Myanmese government suspended the project three years later, citing public objections.

Discussion of a cross-border train project was put back on the table after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy took the country’s reins in 2015, ending decades of military rule.

The north of the country between Muse and Mandalay is seen as crucial to improving the connectivity of the southeast Asian nation. It is also part of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor – linking Yunnan with key commercial centres in Myanmar – under Beijing’s vast trade and infrastructure push the “Belt and Road Initiative”.

The economic corridor spans 1,700km – from Kunming to Mandalay, then east to Yangon and west to the Kyaukpyu special economic zone in Rakhine state, where China wants to build a deep water port and where it already has a cross-border oil pipeline.

According to Monday’s agreement, the feasibility study will be carried out within two years and will assess the environment and social impact of the proposed rail line.

The project would span 431km (268 miles) and have a designed speed of 160km/h (99mph).

Myanmar’s union minister and security adviser Thaung Tun told in June that a railway project connecting Yunnan border town Ruili to Mandalay “would start quite soon”. “In all likelihood, it would be extended to Yangon and Kyaukpyu,” he said.

But Fan Hongwei, a professor with the School of Southeast Asian Studies at Xiamen University, said the rail line was still at the planning stage.

“There needs to be a lot of assessment done on railway building. The challenges include conflicts over land ownership, and also the ultimate contractor who will take over the project – there are many factors,” Fan said. “These feasibility reports are necessary because both sides [China and Myanmar] want to feel confident.

“Large-scale Chinese companies have become more conservative in making investments in Myanmar because of the instability and the lack of security of deals seen in recent years,” he added.

Fan also said the Muse-Mandalay railway would run through troubled areas of the country. The route includes northeastern Shan state, where fighting has raged between rival ethnic armed groups in recent years.