Commentary

Public Needs Reassuring Over BRI-Related New Yangon City Project

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 6 March 2019

Of all the development projects initiated by the Yangon government, the New Yangon City project is indisputably the most controversial.

From the beginning, the project’s location—a 20,000-acre site on the west bank of the Yangon River—has been questioned due to the flood-prone topography of the area. Then it emerged that the project’s main developer, the city government-backed New Yangon Development Company (NYDC), had signed a framework agreement with China Communications Construction Company, Ltd. (CCCC), which is internationally notorious for the shady, secretive deals it has struck to win projects in most of the countries in which it has worked.

Less well known is that the New City project is part of the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s massive international infrastructure development strategy.

The revelation was made by Yangon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein in December last year during a workshop with an invited audience on the project’s master plan in Hlaing Thaya Township in Yangon.

He said the New Yangon City project was discussed during one of State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s trips to China, and was now considered to be among the BRI projects in Myanmar.

He added that the Yangon government wasn’t capable of handling the project, given its huge scale, and that it was now under the management of the Steering Committee for the Implementation of the BRI, which is led by the State Counselor. The 27-member committee, which was formed in September last year, mostly comprises Union ministers. U Phyo Min Thein is a member, along with other chief ministers from Mandalay, Shan, Kachin and Rakhine, all of which are home to proposed BRI projects.

The Yangon chief minister said at the workshop that his government had to submit monthly reports to the president about the progress of the project.

Interestingly, prior to December, the Yangon chief minister had not publicized the fact that the project is part of the BRI—not even at the launch ceremony for NYDC in March last year. He failed to mention it again last month at a public consultation event on the project’s master plan. (It was the second time he had appeared at a public event related to the project.) NYDC has been silent on this subject as well.

The New City project has raised concerns among the public. For example, despite NYDC chief executive Serge Pun’s assurances that CCCC is qualified to implement the project, questions remain over NYDC’s willingness to sign a framework agreement with a company with an international reputation for corruption and bribery, among other undesirable behaviors. The Yangon chief minister has boasted that the new city will create jobs for 2 million people. Given that the project is part of the BRI, it’s quite likely that most of the companies involved in constructing the city will be Chinese. People are wondering aloud just how much of the job-opportunity pie will go to Myanmar people. Another concern involves who will own most of the real estate in the New City upon its completion. Will it be a Chinese enclave like those that have sprung up in some African countries, where Chinese development projects were facilitated by an influx of Chinese?

As it is now responsible for managing the project, the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-led steering committee must consider these issues seriously. There should be transparency and accountability in every step they take regarding the project. At the same time, public concerns surrounding the project have to be addressed.

The State Counselor said during the first meeting of the steering committee that participating in BRI projects could bring benefits not only to Myanmar but to the region as well.

She emphasized the need to thoroughly scrutinize BRI projects from different perspectives to ensure they offered both short- and long-term benefits to the country and the people, and that the selected projects are in conformity with national plans, policies and domestic procedures.

So, it’s very likely that the New Yangon City project will go ahead as planned. As it’s now a state project, the state-level committee must thoroughly scrutinize it to keep it on the right track to ensure maximum benefit for Myanmar and its people. If not, the project will become a source of shame for the country and the latest item on a long list of alleged incidents of corruption, fraud and bribery relating to CCCC’s development projects in many countries.

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