China-Backed Myanmar Infrastructure Project Leaves Farmers Landless

By Yan Naing 9 November 2021

In January 2020, during the visit of China’s President Xi Jinping to Myanmar, China and Myanmar signed concession and shareholders agreements for the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (KPSEZ) and deep sea port project.

Located in Rakhine State in western Myanmar, the KPSEZ and deep sea port project forms part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) plans in Myanmar under the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC).

Beijing considers the KPSEZ and the deep-sea port especially vital to the BRI, as they will give China direct access to the Indian Ocean, thereby allowing Chinese trade to bypass the congested Strait of Malacca near Singapore, while boosting development in landlocked Yunnan Province, which borders Myanmar.

The KPSEZ includes plans to construct an industrial zone with facilities for textile and garment manufacturing, construction materials processing, food processing, pharmaceuticals, electronics, marine supplies and services, and research. The entire project is planned to cover 4,300 acres.

The China International Trust and Investment Corporation (CITIC) won contracts for the deep sea port and KPSEZ projects in 2015. CITIC took an 85 per cent stake in the project, according to the initial agreement signed with the former U Thein Sein administration.

The now ousted National League for Democracy government renegotiated the agreement to increase Myanmar’s stake to 30 per cent. The initial agreement estimated the project to be worth US$9-10 billion (12-13 trillion kyats). However, both sides agreed to begin the project on a smaller scale after Myanmar raised concerns about the country being caught in a debt trap. The first phase of the port will cost around US$1.5 billion (2 trillion kyats), according to the Ministry of Commerce.

With the military regime’s illegitimate State Administrative Council now in power, China’s projects in Myanmar are a high risk as they face protests from the local population. There is also a strong fear that there will be no transparency and accountability in implementing these projects.

Compulsory and forcible land acquisition to expedite Chinese infrastructure projects is a common phenomenon in the countries where these projects have been implemented. In Gilgit-Baltistan in northern Pakistan, villages were set on fire and cleared to make way for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. That left thousands of local people homeless. Now, it seems that the CMEC is also headed in the same direction.

While no significant work on the Kyaukphyu projects has started yet, preparations have already been made to seize 250 acres of land in the proposed KPSEZ industrial zone. The 250 acres of land belong to more than 70 local farmers from four village tracts.

Now it has suddenly been revealed that out of those 250 acres of land, 60 acres belong to three unknown people who registered these land plots under Myanmar’s land ownership law. This ‘sudden discovery’ of ownership of 60 acres has now rendered 22 local farmers as illegally occupying land that they and their families have worked for generations.

Farmers in Kyaukphyu Township fear that the junta will confiscate their land in the China-backed KPSEZ without offering them any compensation.

Local farmers say that they are still working their land in the project area and have not sold or transferred it to anyone. Yet, the names of the three unknown men registered as the owners of the 60 acres of land can be seen on the confiscation statement. This illegal acquisition of land has turned the original land owners/farmers into squatters.

In a similar incident in Kyaukphyu Township during the construction of the offshore Shwe Gas field and pipeline project, a Myanmar military officer forcibly acquired more than 25 acres of land owned by the villagers of Pyar Tae village and demanded more than 30 million kyats in compensation. As the villagers could not pay such a hefty amount, they had to lose their land. This highlights the corruption in government departments. People who have access to information in areas impacted by such projects, work with the authorities to acquire land ownership and later seek compensation from farmers who were unaware of the land ownership transfer.

There have been a number of land disputes over the Shwe Gas field and pipeline project in Kyaukphyu Township, and locals have been protesting against the companies involved. Local land ownership rights have been violated since land was confiscated in the KPSEZ area. The authorities need to reconsider these issues and address them truthfully.

It is time to look at how livelihoods have been snatched away from the Myanmar people in the name of development under the BRI projects. If there is no guarantee of land or employment opportunities and the focus is just on getting the project started, it will lead to more challenges than opportunities for local people.

Yan Naing is the pseudonym for a keen observer of Myanmar-China affairs.

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