YANGON—The Indian ambassador to Myanmar, an economic officer from the US Embassy and a counselor from the Chinese Embassy in Yangon held separate meetings with leaders of a popular Kachin party last week. The issues discussed ranged from the peace process to political affairs and investment in Kachin State.
On Thursday, the leaders of the Kachin State People’s Party (KSPP) met with the counselor from the Chinese Embassy in the morning and a US delegation in the evening in Myitkyina, the state capital. The next day, they held a meeting with Saurabh Kumar, Indian ambassador to Myanmar—the party’s first meeting with a diplomat from Myanmar’s powerful northwestern neighbor.
Formed as the result of a merger between a group of popular Kachin parties, the KSPP is now the strongest party representing the Kachin people. Lying next to China’s Yunnan Province, Kachin State plays a strategically important role in China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The network of infrastructure projects across the region is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy initiative.
Myanmar became an official member of the BRI last year after signing a memorandum of understanding establishing the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) in September 2018.
Kachin is already home to massive Chinese investments including dam, mining and industrial projects as well as tissue culture banana plantations, among others. Under the BRI plan, China is set to invest US$400 million (545 billion kyats) in the Myitkyina Economic Zone on 4,700 acres of land along the Ledo Road and US$22.4 million in an industrial park in the border town of Kanpiketi, which will bring the state even more firmly into China’s economic orbit. Kachin State also plays a vital role in China’s planned China-Myanmar Irrawaddy Economic Belt, a strategic land and water transport route expected to start in Kunming and run through Yunnan’s Longchuan to Kachin’s Bhamo, then to Yangon and the Indian Ocean.
Gumgrawng Awng Hkam, the KSPP’s vice president and a member of its Central Executive Committee, told The Irrawaddy that the Indian ambassador sought the views of Kachin politicians on possible investment opportunities and ways to support development in the state.
“India is also considering reconstructing a segment of the Ledo Road in Kachin State. But they want to ensure that they are not merely helping the flow of China’s exports and that there will be no restrictions on India,” Awng Hkam said.
The Ledo Road was built during World War II to enable the Western allies to deliver supplies to China and thus aid the war effort against Japanese forces.
It was an overland connection between Ledo in India’s Assam State and Kunming in China’s Yunnan Province. China has made the area a strategic priority, with the ultimate aim of linking it with India as part of its BRI, although India strongly opposes the initiative.
“India wants to know our opinion on the important position of the Ledo Road. For us, it would be useful to improve relations with India, especially economically,” Awng Hkam said.
In recent years, the Myanmar government has reportedly asked India to reconstruct the Ledo Road as an alternative to the existing Lashio-Kunming Burma Road. Meanwhile, the Myitkyina to Shingbwiyang section is the only part of the Ledo Road that can currently be traveled by car. The rest of the route needs to be rebuilt.
Myanmar’s land border with northeastern India stretches for some 1,624 kilometers, and Myanmar’s geographic position gives it a key role in New Delhi’s “Act East” policy, which aims to boost economic integration with Southeast and East Asia while providing a counterweight to China’s influence in the region.
Currently, India is involved in several infrastructure projects in Myanmar including the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project, which aims to connect the eastern Indian seaport of Kolkata with the Sittwe deep-water port in Rakhine State by sea.
New Delhi’s strategic goal is to create a Special Economic Zone surrounding the Sittwe port, and in so doing, cement India’s footprint in Rakhine and boost its presence in the Bay of Bengal. The Sittwe port is meant to be India’s answer to the Chinese-funded Kyaukphyu port, which is intended to cement China’s geostrategic footprint in Rakhine.
Aung Hkam said, “The ambassador asked about Chinese investment in Kachin, saying India will find a way to deepen its engagement with Kachin, especially economic relations.”
“It seems they are fully aware of China’s growing leverage in Kachin State and they don’t want to see China gain the upper hand here,” Aung Hkam said.
The Indian ambassador also met with the Rev. Hkalam Samson, president of the Kachin Baptist Convention. They also discussed the Ledo Road project, as well as opportunities for India to help the peace process and facilitate the return of Kachin internally displaced persons (IDPs) across the state.
“The ambassador said they want to contribute to the social welfare of the Kachin people. India wants to know what they can do to establish closer relations with us,” Rev. Hkalam Samson said.
The ambassador also asked about the Kachin party and its potential to win in this year’s upcoming general election.
Rev. Hkalam Samson said, “When it comes to helping the peace process, I told them not to talk only with the government side, and urged them to talk with armed groups as well.”
Officials from the KSPP also held a meeting with Kelly Tek, economic officer at the US Embassy, on Thursday evening. This is not the first time US officials have landed in Myitkyina.
In November, US Ambassador Scot Marciel met with several Kachin political figures in Myitkyina including the leaders of the KSPP, and promised to continue US support for Kachin’s political and economic development.
Awng Hkam said, “This time, the US officials sought potential investment opportunities in Kachin State, especially in the agricultural sector.”
“We also discussed matters relating to the election,” Awng Hkam said.
The KSPP has long asked the US and the UK to open liaison offices in Myitkyina.
“It seems they have been carefully watching us, because of China’s growing influence here,” Awng Hkam said.
“Personally, I understand that US investment is still hard to carry out here because the conditions are insecure due to the civil war,” he added.
At a meeting between a counselor from the Chinese Embassy and KSPP President Manam Tuja, the Chinese side said they would continue to support the peace process in Kachin State.
China’s role in the peace process became crucial in 2017, as it began acting as a peace broker between the military and ethnic armed groups, especially those that are active near its border and haven’t signed a ceasefire with the government.
Manam Tuja said, “I told them that peace should come first, before making economic agreements. They should implement the projects after peace prevails in Kachin State.” The officials also discussed the KSPP’s prospects in the 2020 elections.
Chinese Ambassador Chen Hai visited Myitkyina in November, but only met with government officials, representatives of Chinese companies and Chinese residents in Kachin State. Since assuming his position in mid-2019, he has not yet officially met with politicians from the KSPP. According to Manam Tuja, the counselor’s trip was intended to pave the way for a visit to Myitkyina by the ambassador in the near future.
The Kachin State government recently signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with a Chinese-backed company to develop a business park project in Kanpiketi as part of the BRI. However, locals have criticized the government over the project’s lack of transparency.
Awng Hkam said they told the counselor that the KSPP strongly opposes the Myitkyina Economic Zone and Kanpiketi business park projects for the same reason.
“China should respect the concerns and point of view of locals. We urged them to invest in that kind of project after we have successfully built a federal system in Kachin,” Awng Hkam said.
Kachin’s strategic location has also attracted Japan, which seeks to counter China’s influence in Myanmar. Japanese Ambassador Ichiro Maruyama was the first foreign envoy to meet with KSPP leaders after the party received its official registration letter from the Union Election Commission (UEC) last year.
Many observers have been critical of Myanmar’s tilt toward China, which comes amid a disengagement by the West due to the Rohingya crisis in Rakhine State. Amid severe pressure on Myanmar from the international community, China has shown support for Naypyitaw over the Rakhine crisis. Experts say the two countries’ diplomatic ties have reached new heights under the National League for Democracy (NLD) government.
Early this year, President Xi’s visit to Myanmar alerted other powerful players in the region to the need to bolster their own ties with Myanmar. During the Chinese president’s trip, Myanmar and China signed a feasibility study on a China-funded resettlement project for IDPs in Kachin State.
Rev. Hkalam Samson said the US has been making all possible efforts to counterbalance Chinese influence, though it has yet to launch economic activities in the state. “But for India, it is the very first time they have directly engaged with us,” he said.
“Xi’s trip signaled to the powerful players that it is not time to sit back and relax. They also need to engage in practical cooperation on economic development here,” Rev. Hkalam Samson said.
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