Burma

Myanmar Pulls Swiss Firm to Scrutinize China’s BRI Project

By Nan Lwin 11 June 2020

YANGON—The Myanmar government says it is receiving help from a Swiss company to scrutinize a China-backed study on Beijing’s ambitious railway project to connect Mandalay with Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province in southwestern China.

At a press conference in Naypyitaw on Wednesday, Myanma Railways Managing Director U Ba Myint said the Swiss company has already stepped in as a third party to review the feasibility study for the Muse-Mandalay Electric Railway, submitted by China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group (CREEG).

The managing director did not disclose the name of the Swiss company, but said the company will cover all their own expenses for the review.

The US$8.9 billion Muse-Mandalay Railway project is part of the backbone of the China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), which is itself part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing’s grand Asia-Pacific infrastructure plan. The Muse-Mandalay Railway is expected to be a key part of the economic corridor and connect with the Chinese rail network at the Chinese border town of Ruili in Yunnan Province.

The railway an initial part of the strategic China-Myanmar High Speed Railway, which aims to connect Kyaukphyu in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State with Kunming via Muse, in Shan State.

In 2011, Beijing and Naypyitaw first signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to build a railway from Ruili to Kyaukphyu via Muse. The entire rail line was to run 810 km. However, the government of then-president U Thein Sein suspended the project due to strong local objections and concerns about unfair terms, including interest rates and revenue sharing as well as security. The agreement expired in 2014.

In 2018, CREEG (formerly China Railway Group Ltd.) and Myanma Railway signed an MOU to begin the feasibility study. CREEG covered the cost of the study, which was then submitted to the Myanmar government in April last year during Beijing’s second BRI forum. The study included alignment measurements for the route, the number of stations, water samples, and earth, gravel and soil tests.

“The [Swiss] company will check the details of the feasibility study, including railway routes, alignments and specifications. They will also analyze whether the cost [as calculated by the Chinese side] makes sense,” U Ba Myint said. “They will also scrutinize whether there is anything bad for the Myanmar side.”

U Ba Myint added that “if the company finds that it will be beneficial for us, we will pass it on to the related committees to make the final decision. After all the related stakeholders [from the Myanmar government] have reviewed it and advised us that the project should move forward—then we will move forward with the project.”

“We have no plan to implement it at all if the project would be bad for our country,” he said.

Public concern has increased recently regarding the influx of Chinese immigrants, land confiscations and the loss of livelihoods and resources due to the project. In response, U Ba Myint said, “Let me assure you this: we will think carefully in order to avoid causing any harm to the country.”

According to Myanma railways, Myanmar experts already sent back their feedback on the feasibility study to CREEG. During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to Myanmar early this year, the sides exchanged letters about the Muse-Mandalay Railway feasibility study.

Muse sits on Myanmar’s border with Yunnan and is the largest trade portal between the two nations. With Mandalay as central Myanmar’s commercial center, the railway could become a lifeline for China-Myanmar trade.

The 431 km-long railway is designed to reach speeds of 160 km per hour, meaning it will take only three hours to get from Mandalay to Muse. Currently, Mandalay is connected to Muse via Lashio by a national highway. The drive normally takes more than eight hours.

Critics have raised concerns that the project could burden Myanmar with unsustainable debts and provoke more armed conflict in the project area as the railway will pass through armed conflict zones in northern Shan State.

The majority of local people along the railway have said they were not fully consulted for the project’s environmental impact assessment. Locals said they had received no specific information about the project, though they are increasingly fearful about forced displacement, farmland confiscations, losing water resources and the social impacts of the planned project.

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