Myanmar Unrolls a Welcome Mat for China, but Not All the Way
BANGKOK — As the leader of China, Xi Jinping, touches down in Myanmar on Friday, his two-day visit is designed to celebrate Beijing’s expanding presence in the region, both as an economic and political role model.
But relations between the two neighbors have never been so simple.
China is by far the largest foreign investor in Myanmar, which boasts a trove of natural resources. And China also provides a road map for how one of Asia’s poorest nations might lift its citizens out of hand-to-mouth existences.
“China’s remarkable poverty reduction has led it to become a modern developed nation,” said U Thein Myint Wai, a Myanmar economist and former commerce ministry official. “There will be a positive impact of working with such a nation.”
Beijing also reliably defends its smaller neighbor in the international arena, where the Myanmar military has been accused of a genocidal campaign against Rohingya Muslims in the country’s far west.
Yet unrest in Myanmar’s ethnic borderlands, where roughly one-third of the nation’s population lives, threatens China’s biggest investment projects in the country.
A creeping fear that Beijing is creating debt traps across the developing world and monopolizing profits has compelled Myanmar officials to suspend or renegotiate hydropower and port deals.
“China always says their investment is to help Myanmar’s development and the people of Myanmar,” said Hkalam Samson, the president of the Kachin Baptist Convention, a powerful group in Kachin State, which has been rived by fighting between ethnic militias and the Myanmar military. “But it’s different in reality.”
Kachin is one of three states that are expected to receive Chinese investment pledges during Mr. Xi’s trip. His visit to Myanmar is the first by a Chinese leader in nearly two decades.
“If the investment is not fair, then the people will oppose it,” said U Khin Maung Kyi, the executive director of the Rakhine Economic Initiative, which operates in far western Rakhine State, also the site of ethnic strife. “Investing in conflict areas is risky.”
When Myanmar signed on in 2018 to the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s continent-spanning infrastructure program, it seemed like a lifeline.
Western investment in Myanmar’s frontier economy had not materialized. China was promising special economic zones, roads, railways and even a sparkling expansion of Yangon, the country’s commercial capital.
Myanmar’s civilian government was rapidly becoming a pariah in other parts of the world for its tacit approval of the military-led campaign of slaughter and rape that sent three quarters of a million Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh beginning in 2017.
Conflict was also heating up in other parts of the country, where ethnic minorities have been battling the state almost since the country declared independence in 1948.
As accusations that Myanmar’s military was committing war crimes grew louder, Beijing was the sole powerful voice defending Myanmar.
“This has only emboldened the military’s relentless campaign of human rights violations and war crimes against ethnic minorities across the country,” Nicholas Bequelin, the regional director for Amnesty International, said in a statement.
In recent months, Myanmar has grown even more isolated globally. The reputation of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto civilian leader of Myanmar and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is in tatters for refusing to show compassion for the plight of the Rohingya.
Next week, the International Court of Justice will make an initial ruling related to a legal case accusing Myanmar of genocide.
Yet as much as Myanmar might seem to need China’s backing, the public’s suspicion of Beijing has heightened. As in other countries, China has been criticized for bringing in armies of Chinese workers for infrastructure projects, cutting out locals from jobs.
“Only Chinese employees are hired for their projects,” said Mr. Hkalam Samson, of the Kachin Baptist Convention. “They even bring in food from China and don’t buy anything from Myanmar,”
In 2011, one of the most popular actions by the then transitional government was to suspend construction of a dam in Kachin, which would have submerged a spiritual landmark while sending nearly all the generated electricity over the border to China.
Rumors that the dam, at Myitsone, would be restarted prompted street protests last year. A rally is planned for Saturday to call for the project to be stopped permanently.
In 2018, Myanmar renegotiated the terms of an agreement for a deep seaport in Rakhine State, which critics said ran the risk of ending up in Chinese hands because of a high debt load. Rights groups also condemned the project for trampling on the rights of local populations.
“The absolute lack of transparency over such agreements is deeply disturbing,” said Mr. Bequelin, of Amnesty International.
With firefights between ethnic armies and the Myanmar military continuing to flare along the border with China, Chinese investment has declined, said U Soe Nyunt Lwin, the minister of planning and finance for Shan State, another conflict-ridden region.
“I hope there will somehow be a solution for peace during Xi Jinping’s visit,” he said.
China’s government holds influence over some ethnic armed groups battling Myanmar’s military. Ethnic militia leaders seek refuge in China, and Beijing once chartered a plane from China to deliver ethnic representatives to a national peace conference in Naypyidaw, the capital of Myanmar. Like all others, that peace summit failed.
China, ethnic kingpins and the state of Myanmar, once known as Burma, have all profited from the bounty of the nation’s war-torn borderlands. There is jade, natural gas and hydropower, gold, timber and rare earth metals.
But many residents of these conflict zones have been mired in an endless cycle of displacement and poverty.
“Everyone, the Burmese, the Chinese, they all want what is in our soil,” said Daw Doi Bu, an ethnic Kachin activist and former lawmaker. “We don’t get to profit.”
Hannah Beech reported from Bangkok and Saw Nang from Mandalay, Myanmar.
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