For the last couple of years PJ Wood has focused on growing its manufacturing base in its Chonburi headquarters.
As it continues to expand and shifts to be a truly regional company it has acquired Myanmar’s largest rubberwood company from a leading Japanese multinational group, and aims to transform it into a sustainable manufacturing hub within the next few years together with its local Myanmar partner.
“Other than operating efficiently our secondary purpose in entering the country is to share our knowledge and know how in creating a company that provides happiness to both customers and employees through the standards that we have internally created over the years” according to Mr. Andrew de Jesus, CEO of PJ Group. Mr. de Jesus added that the most important aspect for PJ Wood is to be a leader in ethical and sustainable standards.
The sawmill and timber facility located in Mawlamyie, Mon State a four hour drive from Yangon will be a strategic location in the future as it is within Asia highway and within a few hours from the Thai border of Mae Sot. Currently the facility is the largest rubberwood facility in the country, and surrounded by the largest rubberwood plantations in Myanmar.
“This acquisition will help strengthen and manage our operational risks, given the changing demographic in Thailand for labor intensive industries. Our goal is to fully automate our Thai operations and slowly shift labor intensive operations to Myanmar”. This will be done in several phases, during the first phase the focus is to support the Thai market, according to Mrs. Busayakorn de Jesus, Director of PJ Wood. As a monthly visitor to Myanmar for the past eight years de Jesus believes that the country and its people have a very similar culture to Thai’s. “We understand that their will be initial hurdles in setting up operations in Myanmar, however, we believe that the long term prospects of Myanmar is very bright”
mericans won’t be the only voters going to the polls in November. Myanmar’s third national election since transitioning from half a century of military rule is slated for Nov. 8.
Already, several questions loom over this test of the country’s democratic trajectory. How will the government ensure ethnic civilians displaced by armed conflict can vote? How will Facebook protect voters from disinformation? How will the government manage campaigns and polling in the age of COVID-19?
These are tough challenges. But there is another critical question, easy to resolve, that will also determine whether the exercise is free and fair: Will the government ensure the right to vote for Rohingya?
The Rohingya are an ethnic and religious minority, mostly Muslim, indigenous to western Myanmar; and today, far more live outside the country than inside. The reason for this is summed up in a word: genocide.
In October 2016 and August 2017, the Myanmar military responded to nascent Rohingya militancy with full-scale attacks on civilians, forcing more than 800,000 to flee into neighboring Bangladesh. They have no hope of safely returning to Myanmar anytime soon, and this creates new but surmountable logistical challenges for the 2020 elections.
Rohingya-led refugee groups have already said they want the government to facilitate voting from the camps in Bangladesh. One of these organizations, called the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPH), has urged Myanmar to set up voter registration and polling in collaboration with the Bangladesh authorities. Many other Rohingya have since reiterated the request.
Some in Myanmar dismiss this option out-of-hand, calling it unfeasible. But this is a cop-out.
In 2004, some 850,000 Afghan refugees voted in their country’s first presidential election from camps in Pakistan and Iran and through absentee ballots. In that case, concerned governments and international humanitarian organizations did their part to ensure refugees could exercise their right to vote. Myanmar and its bilateral partners could do the same.
There are also an estimated 600,000 Rohingya still in Myanmar, and many there are also anxiously awaiting news about the election. The three Rohingya-led political parties in the country—the Democracy and Human Rights Party (DHRP), the National Democratic Party for Development (NDPD), and the National Democracy and Peace Party (NDPP)—are all registered and intending to field candidates.
But Myanmar has denied Rohingya the right to vote since the 2015 elections that brought Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to power. Despite Myanmar’s wholesale exclusion of Rohingya, the international community made the profound mistake of lauding those elections. President Barack Obama, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon all congratulated Aung San Suu Kyi on the outcome. Hillary Clinton even claimed partial credit for nudging Myanmar onto the reform path during her tenure as Secretary of State, recognizing the election was “imperfect” but calling it “an affirmation of the indispensable role the United States can and should play in the world as a champion of peace and progress.”
Few stopped to consider the repercussions the disenfranchisement of the Rohingya could have. Some analysts suggested that Aung San Suu Kyi would have to build a constructive working relationship with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in order for her government to be effective. None imagined she’d do so in the commission of genocide against Rohingya, but that’s precisely what happened.
In December last year, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi went so far as to represent Myanmar at the International Court of Justice, defending the military from allegations of genocide in a historic, ongoing lawsuit brought by The Gambia.
By wholly denying any intent to destroy Rohingya, Aung San Suu Kyi won military favor, and by taking aim at Rohingya on the global stage she strategically scored perverse ethno-nationalist points ahead of the elections.
Now, the cycle is poised to continue. Government insiders, diplomats and even representatives of international non-governmental organizations are saying that if all Rohingya were in Myanmar, they would still not meet the requirements of the election law because they lack citizenship. This is a politically convenient excuse.
Not only did Rohingya vote in past elections—during which they were still unjustly denied full citizenship rights—but since the 1990s, Myanmar authorities have kept detailed records of Rohingya through “household lists.” The government has other sources of data on Rohingya as well, including former identity cards and other evidence it could use to determine Rohingya voter eligibility.
Officials may suggest that Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and those in Myanmar will have the right to vote only if they accept National Verification Cards (NVCs). However, these cards are discriminatory, effectively requiring Rohingya to identify as outsiders, thereby foregoing any chance to restore full citizenship under the current law. Any demand that Rohingya accept NVCs in exchange for the right to vote would be unacceptably coercive.
As November approaches, Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladesh are hoping that access to the polls might help them secure a better future.
“Rohingya need a voice in parliament,” Abdul Rasheed, an expected candidate with DHRP in Sittwe Township, tells me from Yangon. This will be his second attempt to seek office.
“This is not only about voting and democracy, it’s also about dignity and protection,” he says.
The international community, including the U.N. and other organizations, must now do everything in their power to ensure the Rohingya have the right to vote.
Governments around the world overlooked Rohingya disenfranchisement in 2015, and that was at least one paver on the road to genocide. They must not make the same mistake twice.
End Assistance to All Military-Controlled Entities
(Tokyo) – The Japanese government should immediately cancel plans to donate money to purchase vehicles and communications equipment for the Myanmar police force, Human Rights Watch said today. The police force, which operates under the auspices of the military, outside the control of the civilian government, has a well-documented record of serious human rights violations.
On July 2, 2020, Japan’s Foreign Ministry announced a grant of 100 million yen (US$930,000) to the Myanmar police for the purpose of purchasing vehicles and wireless equipment for “protecting dignitaries.” The Foreign Ministry claimed the donations would “strengthen the Myanmar police’s ability to carry out public security measures,” create “social stability,” and contribute to Myanmar’s “socio-economic development.”
“It’s inexplicable that the Japanese government would try to curry favor with Myanmar’s abusive security apparatus by providing financial assistance to the police,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Instead of supporting Myanmar’s police, Japan should be helping the victims of rights abuses and ethnic cleansing by working with other donor governments to hold the security forces accountable.”
Myanmar’s police acted as a pillar of repression during Myanmar’s 50 years of military rule, arbitrarily arresting dissidents and student activists, engaging in widespread torture, and creating a climate of fear in the country, Human Rights Watch said. The police remain abusive and unconstrained, in large part because the military-drafted constitution maintains military control of the police. The police operate under the authority of the Home Ministry, which is led by a minister who the constitution mandates must be a serving military officer, and operates under the de facto control of the military.
In recent years, the police have engaged in joint operations with the military, carrying out atrocities, including crimes against humanity, against ethnic Rohingya in Rakhine State in 2012, 2016, and 2017. The Myanmar police force, Border Guard Police, and security police battalions accompanied the military in so-called clearance operations that resulted in mass killings, rape, and arson. Police involvement was documented during the deadliest incidents in August and September 2017, including the massacres at Tula Toli and Gu Dar Pyin, where hundreds of Rohingya were killed.
Police took part in widespread rape, including gang rape, of Rohingya women and girls, as well as killing children while their mothers were being attacked. A woman from Zay Di Pyin, Rathedaung Township told the United Nations-backed Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar: “I don’t know how many policemen raped me, it was not my priority. The only thing I can remember is that they were trying to take my children. They dragged my son from under the bed. I was screaming to protect my children. I have not seen my son again.” In several villages, security forces abducted women and girls and took them to police and military compounds where they were gang raped.
In Rakhine State, the Myanmar police operate the majority of checkpoints, which play a central role in the severe violation of Rohingya freedom of movement in the state. Police enforce an extensive system of extortion, as well as physical harassment at checkpoints, that sustains the Rohingya’s arbitrary confinement to villages and detention camps. Human Rights Watch and other groups have documented torture by police, including the Border Guard Police, against Rohingya who have been arbitrarily detained.
Myanmar police have responded to criticism and protests with arbitrary arrests and excessive and unnecessary force. In 2017, a Reuters investigation into the massacre of 10 Rohingya in Inn Din village prompted Myanmar police to entrap and arrest 2 of the news agency’s reporters. Security police officers told Reuters they took part in raids in the village on orders from the military.
In January 2018, police shot and killed seven ethnic Rakhine protesters among a crowd that had converged at a local government building in Mrauk U after authorities shut down an event.
The police have also been implicated in excessive use of force elsewhere in the country. In April 2020, a video showed police beating a man in Mandalay for violating curfew orders during the Covid-19 pandemic. In February 2019, police fired rubber bullets and a water cannon at ethnic Karenni youth protesting the installation of a statue honoring Myanmar’s independence leader, General Aung San. At least 20 protesters were injured as they attempted to move beyond police barricades.
In response to Human Rights Watch’s inquiry of whether the Japanese government has conducted human rights due diligence to make sure that the aid won’t be used for further human rights violations, the Japanese Foreign Ministry said it has “confirmed with the Myanmar government that this aid be used and maintained for said purposes in an appropriate, effective, and exclusionary manner.” The Foreign Ministry also stated Japan’s embassy in Myanmar will monitor whether the equipment is being used appropriately.
The Japanese government should suspend all aid to the Myanmar police until systematic reforms are carried out and the police are put under civilian control. Japan should also halt aid to all military-controlled entities and ministries, including the Home Ministry.
“The Japanese government should realize that giving shiny new equipment to Myanmar’s police won’t make them less abusive,” Adams said. “By conferring undeserved legitimacy on the Myanmar police, they are signaling to Myanmar’s people that their suffering is of little concern.”
(Bangkok) – Myanmar has failed to undertake meaningful reforms to bring its many rights-violating laws into compliance with international human rights standards, Human Rights Watch said today in a submission to the United Nations Human Rights Council for Myanmar’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in January 2021.
Despite Myanmar’s commitments in the 2015 review cycle to adopt democratic reforms and respect civil and political rights, the government has made little progress. The government has disregarded its international legal obligations to provide accountability for Myanmar military atrocities. It has refused to cooperate with the Human Rights Council-established Fact-Finding Mission to investigate atrocity crimes, and barred the previous UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar from entering the country.
“Myanmar’s unwillingness to provide accountability for rampant rights abuses seems to know no bounds,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “UN member countries should use Myanmar’s UN review to demand the government make progress through deeds, not more flowery talk, to achieve genuine human rights improvements.”
Under the UPR system, all UN member states undergo a review of their human rights records under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva every five years. Despite making commitments during the last UPR cycle, in 2015, to establish democratic institutions, adopt justice sector reforms, and promote and protect women’s rights, Myanmar has achieved little progress. Human rights violations by Myanmar’s security forces against ethnic minority groups, including Rohingya, Rakhine, Kachin, Shan, Karen, and others, have significantly worsened since 2015.
Myanmar’s discriminatory framework targeting Rohingya underlies their continuing dismal situation in Rakhine State. Myanmar is obligated under international law to comply with the International Court of Justice’s January provisional measures order to prevent genocide. In Rakhine and Chin States, the population is in the second year of government-enforced internet shutdowns amid escalating fighting between the ethnic Arakan Army and Myanmar military.
The government failed to revoke or amend rights-abusing laws that undermine the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. As a result, hundreds of human rights defenders, community leaders, trade union members and leaders, and other civil society activists have faced prosecution and imprisonment for exercising their basic rights.
A new five-year project in Myanmar will for the first time document all forests in the Southeast Asian nation – including places affected by ethnic tensions – to pinpoint deforestation risks and boost conservation, the United Nations said.
The joint Myanmar-Finland project, launched this week with funding of 8 million euros ($9 million), will monitor all types of forests in an exercise aimed at helping the country reduce emissions that fuel climate change and adapt to warming impacts.
It will also serve as a basis to develop global guidelines for tracking and protecting forests in conflict zones.
“For a lot of people, Myanmar is a country with still a lot of unknowns,” said Julian Fox, team leader for national forest monitoring at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome, which is managing the project.
“There are huge areas of forests that have never been measured,” Fox told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Thursday.
About 70% of Myanmar’s population living in rural areas rely on its estimated 29 million hectares (72 million acres) of forests to provide for their basic needs and services.
But Myanmar also has the third-highest deforestation rate in the world – after Brazil and Indonesia – according to the FAO, partly driven by agricultural expansion and logging activities.
Although the authorities in colonial times made efforts to map parts of the country and its forests, Fox said there had never been a complete national forest inventory.
“For accurate information on forests, you need to know many things underneath the canopy – the tree species, soil, even the social-political context,” he said by phone.
The project will measure trees – with the potential to discover new species – and monitor biodiversity and carbon-storage levels, he added.
Starting in non-conflict forest zones, before expanding into less-secure areas such as the borders with China, Bangladesh and Thailand, the project will use modern tools like laser tree-measuring equipment and collect physical samples, Fox said.
It will cover Rakhine, a state from which more than 730,000 Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh after a military crackdown in 2017 that the United Nations has said was executed with genocidal intent. Myanmar denies that charge.
By engaging in sensitive talks with different ethnic groups and organisations on the ground, the FAO hopes to be able to monitor forest areas in higher-risk conflict zones.
Myanmar has more than 100 different ethnic groups, each with its own history, culture and language or dialect.
If methods developed and used here prove successful, they could be applied in other forested and remote conflict-affected areas worldwide seen as off limits up to now, Fox said.
“It is important that conflict sensitivity and human rights remain in the core of the forest monitoring work in order to ensure that it benefits all people, including ethnic minorities,” Finland’s ambassador to Myanmar, Riikka Laatu, said in a statement.
All results and data on Myanmar’s forests will be made publicly available, allowing both the government and different ethnic groups to better manage and protect forests, Fox said.
Nyi Nyi Kyaw, director-general of the forest department in Myanmar’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, said the government was “in urgent need of better and updated data about the state of all the forests in Myanmar”.
Lift Restrictions in Embattled Rakhine, Chin States
(Bangkok) – The Myanmar government should immediately lift all internet restrictions in eight townships in Rakhine and Chin States, Human Rights Watch said today. The mobile internet shutdown, which began on June 21, 2019, is affecting more than a million people living in a conflict zone.
The internet shutdown, along with restrictions on access by aid agencies, has meant that people in some villages are unaware of the Covid-19 outbreak, humanitarian workers told Human Rights Watch. Local groups report that the shutdown has made it difficult to coordinate the distribution of aid to conflict-affected communities, and to communicate with their field teams to ensure staff safety. A local editor said the shutdown greatly impedes media coverage of the fighting between the Myanmar military and the ethnic Arakan Army, making it hard for villagers to get up-to-date information.
“Myanmar should immediately end what is now the world’s longest government-enforced internet shutdown,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser at Human Rights Watch. “With armed conflict between the Myanmar military and Arakan Army in Rakhine State amid a pandemic, it’s critical for civilians to get the information needed to stay safe.”
On June 12, the Ministry of Transportation and Communications announced the government would extend the internet shutdown until at least August 1 in the remaining eight townships, citing security concerns. “We will restore internet service if there are no more threats to the public or violations of the telecommunications law,” said Soe Thein, the ministry’s permanent secretary, at a media briefing.
Article 77 of Myanmar’s Telecommunications Law authorizes the Ministry of Transport and Communications to suspend a telecommunications service or restrict certain forms of communication during “an emergency” situation. The broadly worded law should be amended to bring it in line with international standards to protect freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said.
Aid groups told Human Rights Watch they feared that shortages of food and water were underreported in many villages in Chin and Rakhine States due to the communications blackout. They also said that in some communities, family members had not been able to send digital payments or contact friends and relatives in conflict areas. Since January 2019, hundreds of civilians have been killed and about 106,000 displaced by the fighting between the military and the Arakan Army.
Internet restrictions have also made it more difficult for the news media to safely gather information and promptly disseminate it. “It is affecting not just the daily activity of our reporting but also for getting news and fact-finding,” said Aung Marm Oo, editor of the Sittwe-based Development Media Group. “Even though our reporters went to conflict-affected areas and interviewed reliable sources, it is difficult to send the material back to the office because they don’t have internet access.”
The Myanmar government should stop blocking media websites, Human Rights Watch said. State-mandated blocking of entire websites is an extreme measure that can only be justified as the least intrusive measure to protect a legitimate public interest. A broad claim that the sites are posting inaccurate news does not provide justification for blocking the websites in their entirety and indefinitely. The government has not made public any of the directives ordering internet shutdowns or blocking of websites.
The government contends that the mobile internet shutdown does not disrupt the dissemination of information because people in affected areas can use mobile SMS services and public address systems to receive government information. The internet can also be accessed in some locations via fixed connections.
However, the vast majority of internet users across Myanmar use mobile data – through cell phones – to access the internet, which provides more opportunity for people to access information quickly, particularly during crisis and conflict situations. A 2019 survey by Myanmar Survey Research found that while half the total population used the internet, of those users, all accessed the internet via their mobile devices.
The internet shutdown has also hampered monitoring of the extremely vulnerable ethnic Rohingya population in Rakhine State. In January, the International Court of Justice ordered the government to protect the Rohingya from genocidal acts.
Under international human rights law, Myanmar has an obligation to ensure that internet-based restrictions are provided by law and are a necessary and proportionate response to a specific security concern. Officials should not use broad, indiscriminate shutdowns to curtail the flow of information or to harm people’s ability to freely assemble and express political views.
The United Nations Human Rights Council has condemned measures by governments to prevent or disrupt online access and information and called for free speech protections under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In a 2015 Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and Responses to Conflict Situations, UN and regional organization experts said, “Using communications ‘kill switches’ (i.e. shutting down entire parts of communications systems) can never be justified under human rights law.” During crises, governments should refrain from blocking the internet and, as a matter of priority, ensure immediate access to the fastest and broadest possible internet service.
In January, UN human rights experts said in Myanmar, “The blanket suspension of mobile internet cannot be justified and must end immediately.”
“For a year now, the internet shutdown has severely impacted the rights of over a million people in Rakhine and Chin States,” Lakhdhir said. “The government should lift the shutdown, unblock websites, and amend the Telecommunications Law to bring it in line with international standards.”
Japan Beverage Giant Pledges to Address Human Rights Concerns
(Tokyo) – Japan-based Kirin Holdings Company, Ltd. should end its partnership with Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. (MEHL) because of its connections to Myanmar’s abusive armed forces, Human Rights Now, Human Rights Watch, Japan Volunteer International Center, and Shapla Neer said today. The organizations wrote to Kirin on May 22, 2020, urging the global beverage company to terminate its partnership with the military conglomerate, and the company responded on June 12.
“Kirin is putting money right into the pockets of Myanmar’s military, which is responsible for countless atrocities against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Kirin should repair its damaged reputation by disentangling itself from the Myanmar military’s business conglomerate and its abusive armed forces.”
Kirin currently owns a majority stake in Myanmar Brewery Ltd. (MBL) and Mandalay Brewery (MDL) in partnership with the military-owned MEHL. In 2015, Kirin bought 55 percent of Myanmar Brewery Ltd, 4 percent of which it later transferred to the military-owned firm. In 2017, Kirin acquired 51 percent of Mandalay Brewery in a separate joint venture with the firm.
Myanmar’s armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, have long been responsible for grave violations of human rights and the laws of war against the country’s ethnic minority populations. These abuses culminated in the August 2017 campaign of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, including killings, sexual violence, and forced removal, against the ethnic Rohingya population in Rakhine State.
A United Nations-backed Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar reported in 2018 that atrocities committed by Myanmar’s armed forces “rise to the level of both war crimes and crimes against humanity.” In a September 2019 report, the panel concluded that “any foreign business activity” involving Myanmar’s military and its conglomerates Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited and Myanmar Economic Corporation pose “a high risk of contributing to or being linked to, violations of human rights law and international humanitarian law. At a minimum, these foreign companies are contributing to supporting the Tatmadaw’s financial capacity.” The fact-finding mission advocated the “financial isolation” of the military to deter violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.
“It has been over six months since the Fact-Finding Mission report advised companies to financially isolate the Tatmadaw, but Kirin still remains in partnership with MEHL,” said Kazuko Ito, secretary-general of Human Rights Now. “Each day that Kirin maintains ties risks that its business operations are aiding the military commit further human rights violations.”
Kirin has additional links to Myanmar’s military. According to Amnesty International, Kirin’s subsidiary MBL made donations worth at least US$30,000 to the Tatmadaw and Rakhine State authorities between September and October 2017. This was at the height of the military’s ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya.
“Kirin has failed to provide a good explanation for its subsidiary donating tens of thousands of dollars’ worth to the Myanmar military and authorities just as its troops were systematically killing, raping, and expelling Rohingya civilians and torching their villages,” said Takatoshi Hasebe, secretary-general of Japan International Volunteer Center. “Kirin should take the Fact-Finding Mission report seriously and end its relationship with these military-owned companies now.”
Kirin Group’s Human Rights Policy states the company will respect international human rights law instruments, including the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. This means Kirin should “avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities, and address such impacts when they occur,” and “seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.”
On June 12, Kirin responded to the groups’ letter, stating that it intends to “address the concerns raised by the international community regarding our business operations in Myanmar” and is “considering all actions and options available to us that will lead to a positive outcome for the people of Myanmar.”Kirin said it had signed the joint venture agreement on the condition that proceeds would not be used for military purposes, but also confirmed it has “formally commenced the process of exploring alternative structural options” regarding its ownership of its Myanmar businesses with help from external advisers.
Kirin also stated that “it is wholly unacceptable to Kirin that any proceeds from the joint-venture with the MEHL could be used for military purposes.” Kirin said it had hired a third-party auditor to “conduct an assessment of the materials provided by MEHL and other publicly available information” after stating “we have formally and repeatedly requested details of MEHL’s financial and governance structures to ascertain whether proceeds from joint-ventures with MEHL may have been used for military purposes.”
Kirin should urgently act to end its business partnership with the MEHL conglomerate and prevent its subsidiaries from making any further partnerships or donations to the Myanmar military, the organizations said.
“Kirin should demonstrate its commitment to its own Human Rights Policy by taking action to end its engagement with Myanmar’s military-controlled companies,” said Toyoaki Komatsu, secretary-general of Shaplaneer. “Such responsible action will show the country’s persecuted minority groups such as the Rohingya that demands for justice and accountability can bring results.”
Coronavirus may not have been the only virus that China is responsible for. Carried through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has successfully spread the virus of debt too.
Touted as the greatest plan in modern history to revive global trade, the BRI has been the biggest vehicle for China’s chequebook diplomacy.
The loans have crippled many poor economies and now, some of them are waking up to this fact — for instance Afghanista and Myanmar..
China claims to have signed agreements with 138 countries. Estimates say the BRI projects will cost over a trillion dollars.
China is running this lending operation for access and power.
While many countries are already drowning in Chinese debt without realizing it, Afghanistan and Myanmar have taken the first step by rejecting Chinese loans.
China’s renewed push in Afghanistan is a curious case. At first, China wanted nothing to do with this country as ridden by violence, it made no business sense.
However, Beijing sensed an opportunity as soon as Trump said he wanted to exit Afghanistan. Ever since, China has been trying to take CPEC into Afghanistan.
But Kabul sees the pitfalls. Afghanistan’s national debt stand at over 1.3 billion dollars, and China wants to give more loans to Kabul. President Ashraf Ghani has declined the loan.
In Myanmar, the auditor general has cautioned the government against Chinese loans.
Myanmar is already busy paying back loans taken during decades of misgovernance under the military junta. But, Myanmar is firmly in China’s grip. So, saying no to chinese loans won’t be easy…
China is Myanmar’s largest lender, and its biggest trading partner.
Myanmar’s current national debt stands at 10 billion dollars — 40 percent of this debt is already owed to China.
From 1988 to 2010, China gave out massive loans to Myanmar. These loans have been coming due since 2018, and Myanmar is paying back around 500 million dollars per year, including principal and four percent interest rate.
This is a classic example of China’s preadatory lending.
The auditor general has pointed out that loans from China come at higher interest rates compared to loans from financial institutions like the world bank or the IMF. He said, “I would like to remind government ministries to be more restrained in using Chinese loans.”
However, will the government listen?
In January, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi agreed to speed up projects under the BRI. This resulted in 33 agreements, from mega power projects to railways.
Myanmar has already suffered once, it must not repeat the mistake again.
Chinese financial institutions lend money for BRI projects. Construction contracts are awarded to mostly Chinese firms.
A Chinese company receives much of the proceeds of the loan and then projects tend to suffer delays or cancellations. There are corruption concerns, and the host country ends up with a massive pile of debt.
YANGON—The Myanmar government says it is receiving help from a Swiss company to scrutinize a China-backed study on Beijing’s ambitious railway project to connect Mandalay with Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province in southwestern China.
At a press conference in Naypyitaw on Wednesday, Myanma Railways Managing Director U Ba Myint said the Swiss company has already stepped in as a third party to review the feasibility study for the Muse-Mandalay Electric Railway, submitted by China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group (CREEG).
The managing director did not disclose the name of the Swiss company, but said the company will cover all their own expenses for the review.
The US$8.9 billion Muse-Mandalay Railway project is part of the backbone of the China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), which is itself part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing’s grand Asia-Pacific infrastructure plan. The Muse-Mandalay Railway is expected to be a key part of the economic corridor and connect with the Chinese rail network at the Chinese border town of Ruili in Yunnan Province.
The railway an initial part of the strategic China-Myanmar High Speed Railway, which aims to connect Kyaukphyu in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State with Kunming via Muse, in Shan State.
In 2011, Beijing and Naypyitaw first signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to build a railway from Ruili to Kyaukphyu via Muse. The entire rail line was to run 810 km. However, the government of then-president U Thein Sein suspended the project due to strong local objections and concerns about unfair terms, including interest rates and revenue sharing as well as security. The agreement expired in 2014.
In 2018, CREEG (formerly China Railway Group Ltd.) and Myanma Railway signed an MOU to begin the feasibility study. CREEG covered the cost of the study, which was then submitted to the Myanmar government in April last year during Beijing’s second BRI forum. The study included alignment measurements for the route, the number of stations, water samples, and earth, gravel and soil tests.
“The [Swiss] company will check the details of the feasibility study, including railway routes, alignments and specifications. They will also analyze whether the cost [as calculated by the Chinese side] makes sense,” U Ba Myint said. “They will also scrutinize whether there is anything bad for the Myanmar side.”
U Ba Myint added that “if the company finds that it will be beneficial for us, we will pass it on to the related committees to make the final decision. After all the related stakeholders [from the Myanmar government] have reviewed it and advised us that the project should move forward—then we will move forward with the project.”
“We have no plan to implement it at all if the project would be bad for our country,” he said.
Public concern has increased recently regarding the influx of Chinese immigrants, land confiscations and the loss of livelihoods and resources due to the project. In response, U Ba Myint said, “Let me assure you this: we will think carefully in order to avoid causing any harm to the country.”
According to Myanma railways, Myanmar experts already sent back their feedback on the feasibility study to CREEG. During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to Myanmar early this year, the sides exchanged letters about the Muse-Mandalay Railway feasibility study.
Muse sits on Myanmar’s border with Yunnan and is the largest trade portal between the two nations. With Mandalay as central Myanmar’s commercial center, the railway could become a lifeline for China-Myanmar trade.
The 431 km-long railway is designed to reach speeds of 160 km per hour, meaning it will take only three hours to get from Mandalay to Muse. Currently, Mandalay is connected to Muse via Lashio by a national highway. The drive normally takes more than eight hours.
Critics have raised concerns that the project could burden Myanmar with unsustainable debts and provoke more armed conflict in the project area as the railway will pass through armed conflict zones in northern Shan State.
The majority of local people along the railway have said they were not fully consulted for the project’s environmental impact assessment. Locals said they had received no specific information about the project, though they are increasingly fearful about forced displacement, farmland confiscations, losing water resources and the social impacts of the planned project.
The UK government’s overseas anti-poverty fund is “urgently looking into” why a business it owns complied with demands from the Myanmar government to block independent media in the country.
CDC Group’s internal probe was triggered by a Finance Uncovered investigation, which has also prompted Labour shadow international development minister, Stephen Doughty to table parliamentary questions on the issue and suggest CDC should sell its stake in the company.
CDC, the controversial investment arm of the Department for International Development (Dfid), invested US$20m in Frontiir last year – a company providing internet services to 1.3 million Myanmar people.
In March, Myanmar’s transport and communications ministry wrote to all of the country’s internet service providers, demanding they block more than 2,000 websites, including 67 news outlets, on the “pretext” they were spreading fake news about coronavirus.
Frontiir complied with the government’s request, the company confirmed.
But this sparked a backlash from Burmese editors, lawyers, and activists.
In a letter of complaint, seen by Finance Uncovered, they accused the provider of flouting human rights law by implementing the government’s orders.
“Your company is helping the Myanmar government censor essential information to vulnerable populations at a period when access to information is key for their very survival”, they wrote.
The Myanmar government, under the watchful eye of the military who retain significant economic and political power, has perpetrated what are widely considered to be serious human rights violations and is violently clamping down on the free media and civil society activists.
The civilian government, which remains subordinate in many spheres to the military, has also overseen the arrest of dozens of dissidents.
When Finance Uncovered asked CDC if it had a view on Frontiir’s decision to comply with the request, a spokeswoman for the bank said it was “urgently looking into these concerns”.
“CDC has clear rules in place to ensure funding does not support any organisation involved in human rights abuses”, the spokeswoman added.
“We condemn action to restrict the freedom of expression of journalists. The UK Government, our owner, repeatedly raises the issue of internet restrictions and shut downs at the highest levels with the Myanmar Government.”
Mobile internet is a vital source of information about coronavirus, but it is also used in conflict-torn regions of the country as a way for communities under attack to warn friends and relatives of coming trouble.
In the northwestern region of Rakhine, formerly known as Arakan state, it has been blocked entirely since last June.
Authorities say the internet blackout is an “emergency measure” necessary to crush the Arakan Army, an ethnic insurgency battling for greater independence.
Frontiir operates in two cities in Myanmar and is currently trying to expand into two more. “None of those cities,” a spokesman for CDC said, “are in or near Rakhine state.”
But some of the websites Frontiir and other internet service providers blocked had held the government to account over its handling of the Arakan conflict, fuelling fears the move is a smokescreen for a further media crackdown.
“The list included independent media websites under the pretext that they allegedly disseminate “fake news””, said the complaint.
“[It follows previous directives] to shut down mobile internet access in Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Paletwa and Myebon townships. This was a continuation of previous shutdown orders”, the letter added.
In March, news editor Nay Myo Lin was detained for 10 days and charged with terrorism offences after he interviewed a spokesman for the Arakan Army, which had been designated a terrorist organisation. His outlet, Mandalay-based Voice of Myanmar, is on the list of websites the government wants blocked.
And news editor Aung Marm Oo went into hiding after he was charged last year under the Unlawful Associations Act, a law critics say is being used against ethnic minorities and to stifle political dissent. His Rakhine state news agency, Development Media Group, has reported human rights violations during the Arakan conflict. It is also on the list of websites to block.
At the time of publication, both websites were blocked in Myanmar.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of minority-Muslim Rohingya are confined in camps in central Arakan, while corona cases are rising.
“The human rights abuses of the Myanmar Government including in Rakhine state are well known, so CDC have urgent questions to answer”, said shadow international development minister Stephen Doughty.
“If these allegations about Frontiir and their relationship with the Myanmar regime are proven, CDC must immediately divest.”
CDC is the UK’s development finance institution, which is meant to fund poverty reduction projects in the developing world.
It is wholly-owned by the Department for International Development (DfID).
The fund began life in the late 1940s as the Colonial Development Corporation to fund farmers in the British colonies as part of the post-Second World War rebuild.
Its work is currently overseen by Africa minister James Duddridge.
In response to a series of parliamentary questions by Doughty, DfID minister James Duddridge confirmed that CDC has invested $78.8m in Myanmar since 2015 in seven businesses including Frontiir.
CDC has been criticised for pouring cash into shopping centres, gated communities, and luxury hotels in poor countries.
It has also drawn criticism for allowing huge windfalls to senior figures through the sell-off of Actis, one of its investment funds. Senior CDC managers effectively sold it to themselves at below market value, investigative magazine Private Eye revealed in 2010.
More recently, the fund was criticised for failing to properly oversee its investments and prevent human rights violations.
Frontiir said its investment from CDC Group had been ploughed into job-creation:
“[The majority] of Frontiir’s 2100+ employees are Myanmar, and most are under 25 years old who are supporting their families in various regions with remittance”, it said in a statement.
“Frontiir intends to grow beyond urban cities and provide affordable digital access in other regions in Myanmar, including rural hard-to reach areas, while creating jobs for people in Myanmar with CDC’s investment.”