RANGOON — Burma’s Lower House of Parliament on Wednesday decided to halt a 20-acre wharf project in Rangoon’s central port area, located between Bo Aung Kyaw jetty and the Botahtaung Pagoda along the Rangoon River.
The project, which was approved by the previous government, is being undertaken by the Kaung Myanmar Aung shipping company—a subsidiary of the KMA Group headed by Burmese tycoon Khin Maung Aye, who is known to have close ties to former military-backed President Thein Sein. The land that was being used for KMA’s wharf project is currently owned by the Myanmar Port Authority (MPA) under the Ministry of Transportation and Communications.
During Wednesday’s parliamentary session, five lawmakers supported a proposal submitted last week by member Tin Maung Win of Rangoon’s Seikkan Township, which stated that construction connected to the wharf would create river dunes and cause congestion for cargo ships on the Rangoon River. It added that construction of the project would impair the strength of the pagoda, which is one of Rangoon’s most sacred Buddhist sites, and that noises and vibrations from the project site would distract prayers at the pagoda.
Lawmaker Sein Mya Aye from Dala Township said that the project area’s proximity to the pagoda would endanger it, citing a consultancy report—“Code of Practice For Container Depots”—issued by the Hong Kong Container Depot and Repair Association, which suggested that container depots and wharves should be constructed away from conservation areas and religious sites.
“If the container depot and wharf project damages the strength of the [Botahtaung] pagoda, the public is going to hold the government responsible,” Sein Mya Aye said.
Lawmaker Saw Naing of South Okkala Township said that the construction of a new wharf in the area would narrow the passage for cargo ships, mentioning that all ports in Rangoon were river ports except Thilawa, a seaport.
“Currently, there are 25 wharves along the port,” Saw Naing said. “If all 25 wharves could be made to work at full capacity, there would be no need for a new wharf.”
Saw Naing also cited the contribution made by container depots and wharves to heavy traffic on Strand Road, which runs east-west along the river in downtown Yangon and features a regular passage of container trucks.
Another lawmaker, Aung Kyaw Kyaw Oo of Hlaing Township, highlighted that the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC) had previously failed to report projects with adverse socio-economic and environmental impacts to Parliament via the government.
“We observed that the MIC never submitted such project proposals to the Parliament,” Aung Kyaw Kyaw Oo said. He cited the proposed US$70 million 250-bed Parkway private hospital, which was halted by Parliament last month due to a claimed lack of transparency.
“If this keeps happening,” he said—projects being approved by the MIC but then halted by Parliament in the midst of controversy—“the interests of the country could be damaged, with a loss of investor trust and the need to compensate contractors.”
Minister of Transportation and Communication Thant Zin Maung supported the parliamentary proposal against the wharf project, saying it was “too risky.” He mentioned that the project was approved by the MIC before the previous government transferred power to the National League for Democracy (NLD) at the end of March. The MIC has since been reconstituted.
“The project area is critical for [the passage of] cargo ships and it could create congestion with ships berthing at the terminals,” the minister said.
“The only advantage is extra income for the country but from a technical or religious perspective, there are many disadvantages. Though we should welcome private investment, we should not take big risks,” the minister concluded his remarks.
Lower House Speaker Win Myint decided to order a halt to the project, after lawmakers voted in favor of a suspension.
According to a report by the state-owned Global New Light of Myanmar, the project would be implemented according to the Build, Operate and Transfer model—a template used for several of Burma’s larger infrastructure and energy projects in recent years. On completion, the wharf would be able to accommodate two 15,000-ton vessels.
Rangoon has six major port facilities— Myanmar International Terminal Thilawa (MITT), Myanmar Integrated Port Limited (MIPL), Asia World Port Terminal, Myanmar Industrial Port, Bo Aung Kyaw and Sule Wharf, both private and government-owned.
According to KMA’s website, the firm was Burma’s first private shipping company operating between Rangoon, Malaysia, Singapore and the Indian ports of Chennai, Kolkata and Nhavasheva, close to Mumbai. KMA vessels currently ship out of the Asia World Port Terminal in Ahlone Township. Conglomerate Khin Maung Aye’s business empire extends across sectors and includes Golden Myanmar Airways, Parami General Hospital and CB Bank.