BANGKOK - 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.
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.