News / Asia

China-Backed Railway Expansion Stalls in Myanmar

Gabrielle Paluch

Three years ago China and Myanmar signed an agreement to construct a high-speed rail network that would connect China’s Yunnan Province to the Bay of Bengal.

But last month, the three-year memorandum of understanding expired, leaving the network's future in doubt.

Myanmar officials said plans for a $20 billion high-speed railway that would have linked a sleepy seaport in one of Myanmar's poorest states to Kunming, Yunnan's provincial capital, were never realized, and no construction has been started.

But Chinese authorities said they are not giving up.

Rail near pipeline

The train would have run alongside the already completed Shwe natural gas pipeline, built by the Chinese. A road was to be built as well.
Railway Ministry director Myint Wai said last month the project was canceled because it was the will of the Myanmar people.

Wai said there are "no plans to implement this project, and the [agreement] has expired so we will not carry on the project, in accordance with the public's demand."
Similar large-scale joint venture projects between China and Myanmar have sparked popular opposition, mostly from the local people who would be affected by the construction.

These projects include a mega-dam for hydropower on the Myitsone River in Kachin state that appears to have been successfully suspended, and a Chinese-run Latpedaung copper mine in upper Myanmar.
Wong Aung, an activist with the Shwe Gas Movement, said canceling large-scale infrastructure projects with the Chinese is a way the nominally civilian government makes a break with the former military government.
"When they started to build the pipeline, at the time there had been a lot of military operations and a lot of people were still being oppressed under the military junta," Aung said. 

"So now we consider this a kind of political development under the so-called civilian government under President Thein Sein. [The] President usually mentioned about people's participation and a kind of democratization which could create a kind of platform for local people to take control and voice their concerns," Aung said.

Still interested

Chinese ambassador Yang Houlan said the plan has not yet been abandoned by China.

In a statement to VOA, Houlan said, "China and Myanmar have jointly fulfilled the project's design," and the "Chinese side is ready to continue working on the project."
Houlan said the project is part of the planned Trans-Asian Railway Network, that would link all countries in continental Southeast Asia and Singapore to China, by Chinese-built high-speed railways, as per an agreement signed in 2009.

The project was dubbed the "Iron Silk Road" by the Chinese government, and is intended to bring economic development to resource rich countries bordering China, and allow China access to more ports.

Few participating countries have actually acted on the agreement.
However, anti-Chinese sentiment is strong in Myanmar - for decades during the socialist era deadly anti-Chinese riots flared up regularly.

While Myanmar's Rakhine state is badly in need of development, a special economic zone and a planned deep-sea port in Kyaukpyu have not delivered the sorts of basic infrastructure and services that many of Rakhine state's residents need.

Angered by Chinese projects

Activist Aung said he thinks it's unlikely the Chinese-backed project will come to fruition.
"This is one of the obvious examples of how people are being angered against Chinese projects That's why the railway minister would like to express their concern and try to end the MoU, which has already expired," Aung said.
A regional rail network throughout Southeast Asia has been seriously discussed for more than 100 years,when British and French colonial rulers sketched out plans for a Kunming to Singapore railway.

Since then, governments have routinely discussed the idea, but the plans have repeatedly run into logistical and financial problems.

This week Thailand’s military junta announced plans for a $23 billion railway upgrade in Thailand, which would become part of the long-planned regional network. 

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Comment Sorting
by: Charles Ward from: Fauquier, Virginia, USA
August 02, 2014 10:21 AM
Is there confusion between 'high speed' rail and 'freight rail' which is not high speed? There are no 'high speed freight' rail lines, if you mean 250 kph. Freight doesn't need to move that fast, but it does need to move as inexpensively as possible.

The problem for all of this is 'chicken and egg': the high cost of new rail, especially 250 kph, can be recouped only by large volumes of freight and passengers. Does that high volume exist? Will it in 5 years or 10? Who wants to make that gamble?

by: John Paul from: Dublin
August 01, 2014 8:21 PM
If burmese government willing to upgrade their 1954 style railway system, they need to frankly ask for help to american.....I think US government always interested in previous burma's political transform

by: Frankie Fook-lun Leung from: Los Angeles
August 01, 2014 6:49 PM
When Burma imposed self-isolation, China was her closest ally both geographically and ideologically. Now Burma is open and it tries to redue ite reliance on China. China may not like it because Burma is learning to play one country against the other to China's dismay. China would have to adjust and learn as much as Burma.

by: william li from: canada
August 01, 2014 10:38 AM
China is patient, we can wait, there is no rush. but if you want to develop then you need infrastructure, if you need infrastructure then you need China, or you can spend double money to buy from Japanese, your choice. no matter how hard you try to hold, you just couldn't avoid China's influence! the world belongs to China!

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