Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi said the most severe economic impact from the novel coronavirus outbreak is expected in the final four months of this year.
“We’d like to reassure the people that we’re well prepared to address the impacts,” Suu Kyi said in a panel discussion via video conference on Tuesday. “We believe we’ll be able to overcome them through inclusive cooperation.”
Thailand’s neighbour is due to receive $1.25 billion in emergency loans from international organisations, Thaung Tun, investment and foreign economic relations minister, said in the same panel.
The funds are coming from the International Monetary Fund, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, Thaung Tun said. Further loans may be approved, taking total to $2 billion, according to the government.
Myanmar’s official novel coronavirus case count stands at 262, including six fatalities, although there are concerns some infections are undetected.
Although economic growth for Myanmar is forecast to slow to 1.5 percent in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this could rebound to 6pc by 2021, according to the World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects 2020 report released on June 8. The economy grew 6.3pc in 2019.
The slowdown is a result of domestic shutdowns, reduced tourism, as well as disrupted trade and manufacturing. However, the economy is expected to regain momentum next year if the global pandemic is brought under control and global trade resumes.
But the COVID-19 pandemic also brings new challenges to Myanmar, as serious risks remain which could delay the country’s recovery next year.
For example, the pandemic will likely further slow potential growth in the region by weakening investment and the supply chains that have contributed to Myanmar growth over the last decade. Economic activity in the rest of Asia is forecast to contract by 1.2pc in 2020 before rebounding in 2021. The regional outlook will significantly deteriorate if global trade tensions re-escalate.
Based on a survey by the Asia Foundation, half the enterprises surveyed believed business survival represented a moderate or high risk, with garments and textiles, hotel and accommodations being at particularly high risk.
Meanwhile, 92pc of enterprises reported lower sales due to COVID – 19 with 74pc facing sharp declines of more than half of normal sales. Businesses also laid off on average 16pc of their employees due to COVID – 19.
“Our first order of business is to address the global health and economic emergency. Beyond that, the global community must unite to find ways to rebuild as robust a recovery as possible to prevent more people from falling into poverty and unemployment.” World Bank Group Vice President for Equitable Growth, Finance and Institutions, Ceyla Pazarbasioglu, said.
Currently, the Myanmar government is focusing on improving trade and investment with flexible policies, providing financial stimulus to businesses and promoting digital platforms under its COVID – 19 Economic Relief Plan (CERP).
It is also trying to ensure the flow of essential goods such as food, commodities, medicines and medical supplies in the short-term, while raising investment promotion efforts and strengthening cooperation with development partners for more long term stability, Investment and Foreign Economic Relations’ Minister U Thaung Tun said last week.
YANGON, 01 June 2020 – Today, 1.16 million doses of routine immunization vaccines funded by the Ministry of Health and Sports and procured through UNICEF arrived at the Yangon International airport, to support the resumption of immunization services across Myanmar. The UNICEF chartered cargo flight arranged with the cooperation of Scanned Global Logistics also brought the second batch of 10,000 COVID-19 test kits and other supplies as part of UNICEF’s ongoing support to the Ministry of Health and Sports (MoHS) to scale up testing capacity and fight the pandemic.
Since March 2020, routine childhood immunization services have been disrupted on a global scale that may be unprecedented since the inception of the expanded programme on immunization (EPI) in the 1970s. Similarly, in Myanmar, routine immunization services were temporarily halted from 1st April by the Ministry of Health and Sports, to allow the health sector to focus on its COVID-19 prevention and response activities and to maintain physical distancing measures to contain the spread of the virus.
However, the resumption of immunisation services was carefully planned and prepared for, taking account of essential infection prevention measures, alongside standard operational guidelines for health workers, and instructions for care takers to follow. With minimum community transmission in the country, where the confirmed cases are from quarantine sites, routine immunization was resumed in Government hospitals across the country from 18th May and will re-commence in rural health centres and communities from 1st June 2020.
“The Ministry of Health and Sports will continue vaccination services not only for all the eligible children who missed the regular doses in April and May, but also for the children who missed any of the routine vaccinations for other reasons in the past. We would like to request care takers to cooperate with health workers, to follow the recommended infection prevention and control measures, social distancing and hand hygiene measures when attending the vaccination clinics so that all the children are vaccinated safely and can stay away from COVID-19,” said Dr. Myint Htwe, Minister of Health and Sports.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, immunization sessions need a customized approach where services are provided following relevant infection prevention and control and safety measures associated with COVID-19. To minimize the risks of infection for health staff and community members, immunization posts will administer vaccines to an average of 50 children per day to ensure the vaccination posts are systematically organized in line with the recommended measures for COVID-19 prevention.
“COVID-19 is an eye-opener for all of us; it proves that outbreaks can happen in many countries all at the same time. Similarly, vaccine preventable diseases, like measles can re-surge at any time if coverage goes down. Therefore, Myanmar is taking a commendable step in resuming childhood vaccinations now,” said Dr. Stephan Paul Jost, WHO Representative to Myanmar.
UNICEF has been working closely with the Government of Myanmar, WHO, Gavi, the vaccine alliance, and other partners to facilitate the imminent arrival of vaccines in routine immunization programme in Myanmar.
“It is essential to complete the required doses of immunization at the right time with quality vaccines, to save the lives of children and reduce the risk of vaccine preventable outbreaks especially in the remote, hard to reach and conflict affected areas where the health needs are immense,” said Ms. June Kunugi, UNICEF Representative to Myanmar. “UNICEF remains committed to supporting the Government’s efforts to fight COVID-19 and to ensure that children continue to receive other essential services to keep them healthy during this outbreak,” added Ms. Kunugi.
Using the platform of immunization services, the Ministry of Health and Sports will also resume EPI plus activities which include health literacy and promotion, maternal and child health and nutrition promotion activities.
Burmese Authorities Are Using Covid-19 Response Measures as a Pretext to Harass and Extort Rohingyas
This is what life is like for the 130,000 internally displaced Rohingyas trapped in detention camps in central Rakhine state in Myanmar: in the camps, they have no future, with little access to land or livelihoods. They depend on foreign aid supplies and die of treatable diseases because of limited access to healthcare. Shelters, built in 2012 to last two years, have deteriorated. Most children can only attend basic classes at temporary learning spaces.
Burmese authorities are using Covid-19 response measures as a pretext to harass and extort Rohingyas and are doubling down on a system in which they are already effectively incarcerating the population. Rohingyas in the camps told Human Rights Watch that military and police forces regularly subject them to harassing physical punishment at checkpoints. One Rohingya woman said the police made her do sit-ups for 30 minutes for not wearing a mask through a checkpoint, after which she was too exhausted to move. Another man witnessed people being forced to perform squats at a checkpoint with their hands on their ears.
Last week, the government of Myanmar delivered its much-anticipated first report to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) – following the court’s unanimous January 23 provisional measures order – explaining what it has done to protect the 600,000 ethnic Rohingyas in Rakhine state, whom a United Nations-backed fact-finding body said remain under threat of genocide.
The reality on the ground for the Rohingyas is dire: “oppressive and systemic restrictions” imposed on those remaining in Rakhine state, which may be indicative of ongoing genocide. The government established the camps following a campaign of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity against Rohingyas in central Rakhine state in 2012. Almost eight years later, they remain in de facto detention camps surrounded by fences, police, and military.
Myanmar has a long history of creating hollow committees and commissions to appease critics, thwart genuine international scrutiny, and diffuse pressure to reform. But the ICJ’s judges made clear that Myanmar must show “concrete measures aimed specifically at recognizing and ensuring the right of the Rohingya to exist as a protected group under the Genocide Convention.”
In recent interviews with Human Rights Watch, displaced Rohingyas in the Sittwe camps described a familiar array of social distancing requirements, frequent handwashing, and mask wearing, all of which also apply to the general population of Myanmar. The consequences for noncompliance are less familiar.
A Rohingya woman told us that Rohingyas are not allowed to cross Sittwe checkpoints without a mask and are fined or receive ad hoc punishments if they aren’t wearing one. Yet the authorities have not provided enough face masks to Rohingyas in the camps. Several camp residents told us that an entire family must share a mask because they could not afford to buy one for each family member.
There is no guarantee that following the Covid-19 rules protects people from extortion. One Rohingya man said, “Police fine people even though they are wearing a mask…they took the money from a man’s pocket, like 20,000” kyat ($14) – a sizeable sum considering many displaced people only receive approximately 15,000 kyat ($11) per month from the UN World Food Program in lieu of food rations.
Rakhine state, one of the poorest in Myanmar, is ill-prepared to handle a Covid-19 outbreak, but the health risks are even higher for displaced Rohingyas in overcrowded and squalid camps. Those in need of medical referrals to Sittwe General Hospital struggle to obtain permission to leave the camps, even in urgent cases. One Rohingya man said that a township official told him that “If people are affected [by Covid-19], you have to get treatment in the camps. They will not be allowed to the hospital.”
But the camps neither have Covid-19 testing nor the capacity to address complex medical cases. This failure to provide an adequate health response is underlined by Myanmar’s nationwide “Action Plan for the Control of Covid-19 Outbreak at IDP Camps,” which does not include testing or plans for the country’s internally displaced people.
Myanmar may point to its recent presidential directives aimed at preventing genocide, preserving evidence, and deterring hate speech as signs of progress in carrying out the ICJ’s order.
But donor governments, the UN, and others wondering about Myanmar’s compliance with the court’s provisional measures order should consider this: The tightening restrictions and increased scope for extortion mean that if Rohingyas need treatment for Covid-19, they may have to forgo food to buy a mask.
Even with a mask, they may still undergo harassment, fines, and physical punishment at multiple checkpoints, only to find that the main clinic in the camps – the only place they can get medical assistance – cannot test them or provide adequate care. Against the backdrop of the pandemic, as well as the fighting between government forces and ethnic armed groups across Rakhine state, threats to the lives and liberty of the Rohingyas remaining in Myanmar are only increasing.
Compliance with the ICJ’s order means Myanmar urgently needs to take real steps to dismantle the oppressive framework that has targeted the remaining Rohingyas inside Rakhine state and promote and protect the rights that they have long been denied. Anything less would be contributing to the Rohingyas’ destruction.
Prison Time for Breaking Curfew, Quarantine Is Excessive and Unsafe
(Bangkok) – At least 500 people, including children, returning migrant workers, and religious minorities, have been sentenced to between one month and one year in prison in Myanmar since late March 2020 for violating curfews, quarantines, or other movement control orders, Human Rights Watch said today. Myanmar authorities should stop jailing people for Covid-19-related infractions.
Most have been sentenced under the National Disaster Management Law, Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Law, and various penal code provisions. Authorities have charged hundreds more in cases that are ongoing or resulted in fines. Imprisoning people for violating curfews, quarantine, and physical distancing directives is almost always disproportionate as well as counterproductive for reducing threats to public health.
“Limiting public health risks through social distancing is crucial, but jailing people for being outside at night just adds to everybody’s risk,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Throwing hundreds behind bars in crowded, unhygienic prisons defeats the purpose of containing the spread of Covid-19.”
In March and April, national, state, and local authorities announced several directives and restrictions aimed at reducing the spread of the coronavirus. Measures include a mandatory 28-day quarantine for foreign arrivals, nighttime curfews, a ban on gatherings over five people, and several township-level lockdowns. On March 28, government media announced that “those breaking public health order can face jail time.… The Covid-19 pandemic is also a natural disaster, and those who do not comply with the law can face fines and even prison time.” Local authorities oversee enforcement and criminalization of violations, with wide variations across the country.
International human rights law recognizes that in the context of a serious public health emergency, restrictions on some rights can be justified – but only when those measures are strictly necessary, legal, based on scientific evidence, limited in scope and duration, proportionate to address the crisis, and neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application. In the cases below, drawn from media and civil society reports, Myanmar authorities acted well beyond the public health threat posed by Covid-19. These cases represent only a small fraction of the government’s use of punitive measures.
Most of those imprisoned were charged for violating curfew orders under section 188 of the penal code, which carries a sentence of up to six months for “disobedience to [an] order duly promulgated by [a] public servant.” The majority of states and regions imposed curfews in late April requiring people to remain in their homes between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. The government rolled back the nationwide curfew to 12 a.m. to 4 a.m. on May 15.
Authorities arrested 330 people in the border township of Myawaddy, Karen State, between April 20 and May 6 for violating the curfew. At least 50 were sentenced to between two weeks and one month in prison, with the rest fined 50,000 kyat (US$35). Those who could not pay were jailed. In Ayeyarwady Division, authorities sentenced 212 people to between one and two months in prison in April for breaking the regional curfew order. Authorities in Shan State meted out the strictest penalties, sentencing over 20 people to three months in prison for breaking curfew between April 22 and May 4.
Curfew orders are imposed under section 144 of the criminal procedure code, which allows for wide-ranging responses to social conflict or unrest and has long been exploited by security forces to exercise broad de facto emergency powers without oversight. Section 144 should be revised to reduce the scope and scale of its application and increase the threshold for emergency orders, Human Rights Watch said.
People arriving in Myanmar from abroad are required to undergo quarantine for 28 days – 21 in a state facility followed by 7 days of self-quarantine at home. About 61,000 people are currently quarantined in state-run facilities across the country, according to the Ministry of Health and Sports. The majority are migrant workers who have returned from Thailand and China. Border crossings were closed for most of April, but at least 60,000 arrived in March and May.
On April 28, a 15-year-old girl and 16-year-old boy who recently returned from Thailand were sentenced to three months in prison for leaving a state quarantine facility in Mawlamyine after one week. Authorities charged them under section 18 of the Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Law, which provides up to six months in prison and a 10,000 kyat fine for “whoever violates the prohibitive or restrictive order issued by the relevant organization or officer.” On April 9, the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, urged governments to institute a moratorium on new children entering detention facilities, release all children who can be safely released, and protect the health and well-being of children who must remain in detention.
Sections 26 and 30(a) of the Natural Disaster Management Law have also been used regularly to incarcerate violators of quarantine and physical distancing orders. Section 26 carries a prison term of up to two years for anyone who “interferes, prevents, prohibits, assaults or coerces” a department or official conducting “natural disaster management.” Section 30(a) carries a maximum one-year sentence for failing to comply with a disaster management directive.
The Yinmarbin Township Court sentenced a man in Sagaing Division to one year in prison under section 26 for “being drunk and loitering around” while under state monitoring for possible Covid-19 infection. Another man in Sagaing Division was sentenced to six months under section 30(a) for leaving the Ye-U township hospital while being watched for symptoms. Authorities arrested a married couple when the husband visited his wife at a state facility in Naypyidaw where they were quarantined in separate rooms. On April 20, both were sentenced to six months in prison under section 30(a).
States began issuing bans against gatherings of more than five people in March, with a nationwide ban instituted on April 17. In Sagaing’s Khin-U township, two people were sentenced to six months in prison on April 7 under section 30(a) for holding a charity event in violation of the local order against group gatherings. In Chanmyathazi township, Mandalay, 12 Muslims were sentenced on May 8 to three months in prison under section 30(a) for holding prayers at a house. Two boys arrested with them were detained for a month and a half.
On May 4, six labor rights advocates were sentenced to three months in prison for holding a protest at a factory in Yangon regarding a pay dispute. Authorities broke up the protest and charged the six union leaders and members under the Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Law.
The labor union arrests reflect a broader effort by authorities to exploit instability surrounding the coronavirus to further crack down on freedoms of speech and assembly. The government plans to increase its powers to restrict speech with a draft Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Bill currently being discussed in parliament, which would provide up to six months in prison for people spreading information about diseases that may “cause panic.” Parliament should revise the bill to remove criminal penalties for peaceful speech, Human Rights Watch said. Parliament should also amend the National Disaster Management Law, Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Bill, and related regulations to remove prison sentences for peaceful violations of quarantine, stay-at-home orders, and other emergency directives.
While quarantines and social distancing are a vital part of the public health response to the pandemic, their enforcement should not give rise to new tools of abuse. Instead, the health ministry and state public health departments should facilitate compliance by coordinating inclusive public awareness campaigns; providing people in quarantine with access to health care, including mental health services, and accurate, up-to-date information; and supplying resources such as face masks, food, water, and other essentials to those in need. To the extent possible, the public health force and other relevant civilian authorities, not security forces, should oversee enforcement of quarantines orders.
In its April briefing on Covid-19 and human rights threats, the UN noted that excessive emergency measures ultimately threaten the pandemic response: “Heavy-handed security responses undermine the health response and can exacerbate existing threats to peace and security or create new ones. The best response is one that aims to respond proportionately to immediate threats whilst protecting human rights under the rule of law.”
Locking people up for violating measures such as curfews and quarantine may increase the spread of Covid-19 as people are rotated in and out of crowded detention facilities. In April, Myanmar authorities pardoned about 25,000 prisoners under its annual Buddhist new year amnesty, reducing the overcrowded prison population to just above official capacity. But the remaining population still has inadequate space for effective social distancing. Prisons nationwide are ill-equipped to deal with a coronavirus outbreak, with only 30 doctors and 80 nurses employed across the entire prison system.
“Myanmar did the right thing in releasing thousands of prisoners last month, but jailing regulation violators threatens to undo that progress and put more people in harm’s way,” Robertson said. “The authorities should act to prevent the spread of Covid-19, rather than using the pandemic as a pretext for violating rights.”
CHIANG MAI – Elections are scheduled for November in Myanmar, and there is no indication so far that the polls will be postponed due to the Covid-19 crisis. Neither is there much doubt about the outcome.
Most political observers believe that State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) will win again, though not in the same landslide fashion as in 2015 as recent by-elections show she and her party have lost significant support in ethnic areas.
But the bigger electoral question is how her party’s delicate relationship with the autonomous military will play out and in that context how her government’s ties to its powerful northern neighbor China will be portrayed and potentially politicized on the campaign trail.
An entirely new paradigm has emerged in Myanmar, one where Suu Kyi is now seen as a trusted ally of Beijing and the military as a nationalistic bulwark against China’s strong advances. That’s a significant reversal, one that could have implications for stability in the lead-up to polls.
When Suu Kyi was under house arrest during military rule or active in non-parliamentary politics, China viewed the long-time pro-democracy icon with suspicion. That was at least in part because her late British husband, a Tibetologist, maintained ties with many Tibetans in exile.
The military, on the other hand, was closely allied with China and depended on friendly relations with Beijing for arms supplies and diplomatic support at the United Nations, particularly when Western nations sought to refer its harsh political repression to the Security Council for possible sanctions.
Fast forward to the present and those tables have turned. Suu Kyi has become China’s go-to politician for projects and schemes, while the military, though not openly critical of Beijing, has sought to keep a distance from its advances.
The flipped script has been driven by geopolitics. The Rohingya refugee crisis, and Suu Kyi’s refusal to condemn the carnage the military unleashed in Rakhine state in 2017, have dramatically turned her from being the darling of the West into an international pariah.
She has been stripped of one human rights award after another, many of which she earned during her long non-violent struggle for democracy against abusive military rule.
As such, Western aid can no longer be taken for granted in Myanmar, with most grants conditional on improvements in or respect for human rights. But economic development is crucial for Suu Kyi to maintain her popularity ahead of this year’s election.
That has pushed her ever closer to China and its no-strings-attached aid and assistance. Indeed, in November 2017, just months after hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees streamed across the border into Bangladesh, Suu Kyi was given red carpet treatment in Beijing.
In January this year, Xi Jinping became the first sitting Chinese president to visit Myanmar since Jiang Zemin toured the country in December 2001. Xi arrived in Myanmar with 33 bilateral agreements that if implemented will bind Myanmar ever closer to China.
Those include high-speed rail and deep-sea projects and strengthening of the so-called China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), which aims to give China direct access to the Indian Ocean. The agreements were crucial parts of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which Myanmar joined as a founding member in 2015.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the Myanmar military’s commander, may have visited Beijing a week before Suu Kyi arrived in 2017, a visit at which Xi described Chinese-Myanmar military relations as “the best ever”, but both knew in reality that wasn’t and still isn’t the case.
Myanmar’s military sees itself as the chief defender of national sovereignty and, according to security analysts in Yangon, the generals are apprehensive about China’s rapid economic and infrastructure expansion in the country.
That apprehension is compounded by insurgencies in ethnic Palaung-inhabited areas in northern Shan state and Rakhine state in the west, where the Arakan Army (AA) has grown from a handful of guerrillas to a formidable fighting force in the span of less than a decade.
It is hardly any secret that both the Palaung Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and AA are equipped with Chinese-made weapons obtained through the United Wa State Army, Myanmar’s strongest and best-armed ethnic army which has a long-time close relationship with China.
In November last year, the military expressed its displeasure that the country’s most active insurgents carry mainly Chinese arms. A huge cache of Chinese-made weapons, which the military claimed it had captured from the TNLA, was put on public display and shown on national television.
Among the haul was automatic assault rifles, recoilless rifles, boxes with bullets, RPGs and even a FN-6 shoulder-fired MANPAD, or man-portable air-defense system gun. Pictures displayed on social media have recently shown an AA commander carrying an FN-6, a gun which has been seen previously in a civil war situation only in Syria and Iraq.
China’s double-game in Myanmar, where it serves as both an armed conflict mediator and supplier of arms to insurgents, is a long-worn carrot and a stick approach to get what it wants, namely the CMEC and access to Myanmar’s rich natural resources including copper, gold, jade, amber and rare earth metals.
Myanmar is the only immediate neighbor through which China can bypass the congested Malacca Strait and the contested waters of the South China Sea, putting the development the deep-sea port at Kyaukphyu on the Bay of Bengal high on Beijing’s BRI agenda.
But China has not yet secured all it wants in Myanmar. A massive hydro-electric power project at Myitsone in the far north of the country was suspended in 2011 by then-president Thein Sein, a former army general. As much as 90% of the power produced was scheduled for delivery to China.
Moreover, the initial $7.5 billion price tag for the Kyaukphyu port project has been winnowed down to $1.3 billion amid concerns of a possible Chinese debt trap.
Whether the military rolled back these two big-ticket projects is not immediately clear. Privately, however, sources close to the military’s leadership believe Suu Kyi is moving the country too close to China, without taking into consideration what Chinese largesse might mean for national sovereignty.
The Covid-19 crisis may increase that concern as Western investment has been largely shelved and China alone seems to be willing to assist and invest even more in Myanmar during the pandemic.
On May 20, Xi spoke by phone with Myanmar President Win Myint to highlight China’s donation of medical supplies and two medical teams to Myanmar to help fight the disease. China’s ambassador to Myanmar Chen Hai emphasized in a recent interview with the Myanmar Times that Beijing remains committed to investing in the country despite Covid-19.
But that investment will likely accrue more political benefit to Suu Kyi and her NLD than the military’s aligned United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in an election year, raising the prospect that Beijing’s deepening influence could for the first time become a political issue on the campaign trail.
At present, fears that China is using the pandemic to exert excessive pressure and push through BRI projects in Myanmar are exaggerated.
With the COVID-19 pandemic past its peak in China, attention has turned to the Chinese government’s deployment of “COVID diplomacy.” This term frames how China’s government is sending medical supplies and personnel across the world — including to Myanmar — to build goodwill and show global leadership in fighting the pandemic. Some Southeast Asian observers say it is an overt propaganda campaign, with others going further and warning of the region’s acceptance of Chinese government soft power.
For Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) partners, some view China’s government are using such soft power to push through projects that may not be in the recipient’s best interests. In Myanmar, some saw Chinese Ambassador Chen Hai’s May 6 meeting with Deputy Minister for Planning, Finance and Industry U Set Aung regarding the implementation of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) project — which falls under the BRI — as an attempt to push such projects through.
The discussions took place soon after Myanmar released its COVID-19 Economic Relief Plan (CERP), which was published on April 27. The CERP details the country’s short- and medium-term plan to deal with the economic impact of the pandemic and includes stipulations to expedite the solicitation of strategic infrastructure projects, as well as approve and disclose large investments by reputable international firms that are experiencing delays.
For the time being in Myanmar, however, fears that China’s government is using the pandemic to exert excessive pressure and push through BRI projects are exaggerated. The suspicion surrounding Chen Hai’s meeting is questionable given that discussions were on projects for which MoUs had been signed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Myanmar in January this year, the first such visit by a Chinese leader in 19 years.
Indeed, the acceleration of the BRI in Myanmar was already underway before the global ramifications of the COVID-19 outbreak were known. Ahead of his arrival in Myanmar in January, Xi called for the “deepening of results-oriented Belt and Road cooperation and [to move projects] from a conceptual stage to concrete planning and implementation in building the CMEC.”
During Xi’s visit, the Kyaukphyu SEZ and deep-sea port, Myanmar-China border economic zones, and New Yangon City developments were described as the “three pillars” of the CMEC. These were the three projects reportedly discussed during Chen Hai’s May 6 meeting. Certainly, the Chinese government will be hoping to improve its image to ease BRI project implementation. Projects may be accelerated to mitigate the expected economic downturn in Myanmar. Yet, there has been no major shift in BRI project implementation because of the pandemic. Given the scale of BRI projects and importance to Myanmar’s economy, it would have been astonishing if such a meeting had not taken place soon after the CERP was released.
Moreover, Chinese government soft power projection into Myanmar needs to be viewed in context. Myanmar has shown a degree of autonomy in its economic relations with China. Indeed, soft power is defined as the ability of a state to get what it wants through attraction rather than coercion, which some see China as trying to do via its COVID diplomacy. For soft power to be successful, however, depends on how the recipient actually responds to such diplomatic overtures, not whether the overtures are made.
Myanmar is not a passive bystander and has had success in securing better terms for BRI projects. In 2017, the CITIC consortium — which won a tender to develop the Kyaukphyu deep-sea port in 2015 — agreed to lower its stake in the project from 85 percent to 70 percent. This was after a Myanmar-government led committee pushed for better terms. Furthermore, in 2018 the Myanmar government successfully scaled down the project from $7.3 billion to $1.3 billion, recognizing it was taking on too much debt through the project. ADVERTISEMENT
For the Chinese government, memories of the 2011 cancellation of the China-backed Myitsone dam in Kachin State following popular protests regarding its environmental impacts and allegedly exploitative terms will also be fresh in mind. Beijing is aware that if projects are simply rammed through, they could meet resistance and stoke public anger similar to that directed at the Myitsone dam. Indeed, China’s government appears ready to move at Myanmar’s pace regarding BRI project implementation, also recognizing that the upcoming elections in November will constrain Myanmar’s ability to move ahead with projects that the public is wary of.
Even with economic headwinds looming, and while there will be greater urgency to get BRI projects underway, this does not necessarily mean projects will be hastily and inequitably pushed through. Any exercise of COVID diplomacy deserves close scrutiny, of course; however, it is important to see projects in their local contexts and not be swayed by undue suspicion.