Chinese-Backed New City Project on Myanmar-Thai Border Under COVID-19 Lockdown

By The Irrawaddy 21 June 2021

Myanmar authorities have locked down the controversial China-backed Shwe Kokko new city project in Karen State, eastern Myanmar following a spike in COVID-19 infections in the area.

The lockdown comes as Myanmar is experiencing a recent rapid rise in coronavirus cases, with a total of 546 new infections reported nationwide on June 19 alone, according to the junta-controlled Ministry of Health and Sports (MOHS).

“There have been over ten COVID-19 cases now. Both the project site and the village are in lockdown. All outsiders are required to be kept in isolation for 14 days,” said Shwe Kokko project director Saw Min Min Oo.

“A few days ago, some security and cleaning staff tested positive for the virus. Two of my friends and myself have also tested positive for the virus,” said an employee who works at the construction site.

Known as Shwe Kokko for its location in Shwe Kokko, a Moei River village on the Myanmar-Thai border in Myawaddy Township, the new city project has been plagued with allegations of Chinese mafia involvement.

The project is reported to be a US$15-billion (19.45-trillion-kyat) collaboration between the Chit Lin Myaing Co. run by the Karen State Border Guard Force (BGF) and a Hong Kong-registered company, Yatai International Holding Group.

Villagers in Shwe Kokko, including a BGF member, have also tested positive for COVID-19. The BGF member is reportedly responding to medical treatment.

Myanmar authorities and the Shwe Kokko management are providing tests, but the former charges 10,000 kyats and the latter charges 800 Thai baht per test, according to locals.

“It costs 800 baht or around 40,000 kyats to test. Previously, we didn’t have to pay for the test if we got sick and got tested. But if you get sick now, it costs over 1,000 baht to test, including medicines for the fever,” said a local.

COVID-19 tests were provided free before the Myanmar military seized power in a Feb. 1 coup.

Myanmar has seen a sharp spike recently in COVID-19 cases, in what the MOHS has described as a third wave of coronavirus.

Authorities have imposed stay-at-home orders in a number of townships in Sagaing Region and Chin State, with schools shut in those townships. However, the school in Shwe Kokko village is being kept open, despite the concerns of local residents.

Work began on the Shwe Kokko project in 2017. Allegations soon emerged that Chinese criminal gangs are involved in the project and are using it as a base for illicit activities including money laundering.

Chit Lin Myaing Co. has denied ties to the Chinese mafia and illegal online gambling activities, insisting that the BGF has total control over the project.

After the project came under the spotlight over a lack of transparency, suspected illegal activity and concerns about the social impact of casinos, among other things, the ousted civilian government launched an investigation into the development.

In October last year, three Myanmar military officers were dismissed for alleged negligence and corruption in connection with the Shwe Kokko project.

The BGF was formed from the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army in 2010, as required under the 2008 Constitution, which made it mandatory for rebel groups to transform into BGFs in order to engage in peace talks with the government.

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