RANGOON — Beijing intends to push ahead with plans to build a railway linking western Burma with China, but will do so only with the support of the Burmese government and people, according to China’s envoy to Burma.
The stalled railway and road project linking Kyaukphyu in Arakan State to Kunming, the capital of southern China’s Yunnan Province, was envisioned as a major transportation link to facilitate development at an economic zone in Burma’s impoverished west.
It was reported earlier this week that the plan was being scrapped, but China’s envoy to Burma said on Thursday that opposition to the project had been overstated.
China’s state-owned Railways Engineering Corporation and Chinese government officials have met local people along the project area, but tallied no significant resistance to the project as Burma’s government has claimed, according to Yang Houlan, the Chinese ambassador to Burma.
“The Kyaukphyu-Kunming railway project is important not only for the development of areas along the railway but also for the growth of the whole country,” stressed the Chinese ambassador during a press conference at his residence on Thursday. “According to our study, we’ve heard no voices against the project. The only thing we’ve heard was dispute over relocation of houses.
“Most of the locals support the project,” he claimed. “We also want to know if the people really do not support the project because we have seen in newspapers that government officials alone are speaking against the project. However, we respect the decision of the Burmese government and people.”
In 2011, Burma signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with China’s state-owned Railways Engineering Corporation to construct the Kyaukphyu-Kunming railway. However, with no construction yet carried out, the MoU has lapsed and the project would not be continued, according to a Railway Transport Ministry official.
Among the factors working against the project, its projected expenditure of US$20 billion was not enough to get the job done, negative environmental impacts were feared and opposition from local residents had been voiced, the official, who asked for anonymity, told The Irrawaddy on Monday.
“We just made a memorandum of understanding between the two parties. Now, we haven’t made any new agreement to start operations, so what I can say is that we aren’t working on this project,” said the official.
Under the terms of the 2011 deal inked between Burma’s government and the Railways Engineering Corporation, the company was to bear the bulk of the $20 billion price tag. The railway would function on a build-operate-transfer basis, with the Chinese firm handing over the infrastructure to the Burmese government after 20 years.
Civil society groups and activists have pointed out potential negative environmental and social impacts of the project, and protests against it have been staged.
China has long been the dominant foreign investor in Burma, but the flow of Chinese money into the neighboring Southeast Asian nation has slowed in recent years with the installation of President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government in 2011. Opposition to Chinese projects has increasingly given investors headaches, most notably the decision by Thein Sein to suspend construction of the multi-billion dollar Myitsone hydroelectric dam in September 2011.