Popular Shan Party Warns Chinese Projects Without Local Consent Risk More Conflicts

By Nan Lwin 17 January 2020

YANGON—A prominent Shan political party has urged the Chinese and Myanmar governments to seek approval from both local people and the Shan State Parliament for the implementation of Chinese-backed cross border economic projects in Shan State, which are key to the Chinese president’s ambitious infrastructure plan for the region.

A few hours before Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived at the capital in Naypyitaw on Friday, the popular Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) released a statement warning that if the Union government refuses to recognize local stakeholders’ right to participate in development projects or rushes the implementation of projects, it will provoke more conflicts in Shan State.

The SNLD stressed that “the Union government must not allow” Chinese projects without asking approval from the Shan State Parliament.

China and Myanmar are gearing up to implement Chinese projects in Shan State, but the state government has yet to discuss the projects in the state parliament, U Sai Kyaw Nyunt, Secretary-1 of the SNLD, told The Irrawaddy.

“They need approval from local people first, and then it is very important to get approval from the relevant parliament. If the project will be implemented in Shan, the project must be approved by the Shan parliament,” U Sai Kyaw Nyunt said.

Northern Shan State is a key for Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects, as the backbone of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) includes the Muse-Mandalay Railway and two cross border economic cooperation zones in Muse and Chinshwehaw.

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Myanmar Friday with an agenda to promote BRI projects in Myanmar. Myanmar signed an MoU with China to establish the CMEC in September 2018.

Chinese President Xi Jinping published an article Thursday in Myanmar’s state-owned newspapers stressing that Myanmar and China need to deepen “result-oriented Belt and Road cooperation” and move from “the conceptual stage to concrete planning and implementation” of Beijing’s infrastructure projects across Myanmar. In the article, he highlighted three projects that both sides need to promote, including the China-Myanmar Border Economic Cooperation Zone.

The SNLD said that local people in Shan State practice customary land tenure systems in the area for the proposed economic cooperation zones in Muse and Chinshwehaw. The party warned that it is important to avoid creating possible conflicts, including between authorities and local residents if authorities decide to forcibly seize the land.

In Myanmar, many people use customary shared land ownership systems that include freeholding lands under common ownership, community forest reserves and customary tenure for rotational farming practices. These systems are most common in ethnic areas.

However, many people, including ethnic people, have criticized the newly-amended 2018 Vacant, Fallow and Virgin (VFV) Land Management Law for failing to recognize ethnic customary tenure. The National League for Democracy government set a deadline of March 11, 2019 to register vacant, fallow and virgin land in order to allow for use by agribusiness, in accordance with the VFV Law. The law imposes a two-year prison sentence on anyone found living on VFV land without a permit after the deadline.

According to data released by the Mekong Region Land Governance Project survey in February, 95 percent of people living on VFV land had no knowledge of the law and a majority of ethnic people missed the deadline for registering land.

In northern Shan State, local residents living along China’s strategic railway project have criticized the Myanmar government for its lack of transparency as they fear their land will be forcibly confiscated and they will lose their water resources and livelihoods. Residents said that they were not adequately consulted about the impacts of the railway. The project also passes through armed conflict areas in northern Shan state.

“If those projects cause negative impacts to the local people, we will stand with them,” U Sai Kyaw Nyunt said.

The SNLD asked government authorities to publicize the details from project documents and give local residents opportunities to comment and make recommendations on the projects.

The SNLD warned that Chinese-backed projects will carry negative impacts, cause instability and fracture the peace in those areas if the projects lack transparency, cause environmental and social harms or fail to respect human rights and dignity.

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