MYANMAR would need to take a strong governmental role to accelerate the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) as it becomes an active part of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), following the suspension of a controversial hydropower dam venture in 2011, an senior Burmese economist has suggested.
Dr U Myint, formerly chief economic adviser to former Burmese leader Thein Sein, said the previous and present Myanmar governments have taken different approaches to engaging China over large-scale infrastructure projects.
"This apparently inconsistent policy has the potential to cause confusion and anxiety among the Myanmar public and implementing officials, who are usually not included in or consulted on decisions related to investment or infrastructure projects. Past experiences in dealing with China may also cause skepticism on the part of both the public and bureaucrats," Dr U Myint wrote in a guest publication for Singapore's ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute published Tuesday.
Myanmar suspended the Myitsone dam project with China in 2011, it was under the Union Solidarity and Development Party government led by Mr Thein Sein. After his administration ended in March 2016, the question of whether the project should be resumed became a heated and emotional issue, Dr U Myint said.
In 2018, Myanmar's democratically-elected National League for Democracy government and signed a memorandum of understanding with China for the CMEC project, as part of plans to bring Myanmar closer into the Belt and Road orbit. A related agreement to develop a deep-sea port at Kyaukphyu in southern Rakhine State, together with a special economic zone, was signed in November 2018.
The Myitsone dam remained controversial as China appeared to see it as an important part of the BRI, and that any delay could dampen bilateral relations, but thousands in Myanmar are concerned about the environmental impact and loss of livelihood resulting from the flooding.
Dr U Myint also noted that a Chinese academic had pointed out that Myanmar society is largely not aware of the BRI and that knowledge of the initiative is limited to government officials and elites engaged in policy research or dealing with China. He said there is a lack of transparency over BRI project details and a general perception that mid- to lower-level officials are kept in the dark, while only those at the top are in the know.
"Obviously, this must change. Not only officials down the line but also experts, specialists, researchers, civil society organizations and members of the public need to be informed, and consulted where their inputs are necessary, or in areas where they will benefit or be affected by BRI projects," Dr U Myint said.
He said there are several measures that Myanmar may adopt to accelerate the CMEC Plan for mutual benefit in its BRI engagement in the coming years.
On top of the need for transparency, Dr U Myint said, there should be an official announcement that the Myitsone Dam project will be replaced by the CMEC Plan. In addition, he urged greater protection for Myanmar's ethnic minority groups, by enacting laws to ensure that the human and economic rights of minorities are not adversely affected by the project.
"To have mutually beneficial results from BRI engagement, China and Myanmar must cooperate as equal partners with respect for each other," Dr U Myint said.
He added: "In fact, it is not just the BRI “basket” that counts for pursuing peace and prosperity. Myanmar must continue with its efforts to actively exchange views and ideas, taking due account of good and workable advice and recommendations. It must also take account of the moral and material support currently forthcoming from its ASEAN partners and from other key regional players as well as from the United Nations and Myanmar’s traditional bilateral and multilateral development partners on the world stage."