China and Japan’s Misguided Adventures in Myanmar

January 24th, 2020  •  Author:   Progressive Voice  •  6 minute read
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“If those projects go ahead without listening to our voices, there will be more negative effects than positive. We would like to let President Xi know what is actually happening on the ground. We also want to urge the Myanmar government to listen to our voices.”

Tu Hkawng, coordinator of Airavat

The visit of China’s President, Xi Jinping, has brought into focus the commitment that the Governments of both Myanmar[1] and China have for a destructive form of development. Huge infrastructure projects, exploitation of natural resources, and rapid industrialization are the priority, despite the damage that such projects will do to the environmental, social, and cultural fabric of Myanmar. Furthermore, the potential for this development path to exacerbate armed conflict and undermine the prospects for a political settlement between ethnic armed organizations and the Myanmar government and military is being ignored for the thirst for profit.

President Xi Jingping concluded a two-day visit to Myanmar, the first such visit of a Chinese President for over 20 years, by signing 33 deals, MoUs and cooperation agreements with the Myanmar government. Much of them relate to the China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), a Y-shaped component of the larger Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which runs across Asia and is transforming the global economic and political landscape. The CMEC is a vital cog in the BRI, as it provides a direct link from the Indian Ocean to Yunnan Province in southern China, thus drastically shortening China’s current access route, which is via the Malacca Straits in Malaysia. The projects include the development of the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone in Rakhine State, which is also the starting point for oil and gas pipelines that dissect Myanmar, going through Shan State into China. Other projects include economic zones and rail links, reinforcing the CMEC.

While China is the biggest provider of foriegn direct investment in Myanmar, there are others who have a stake in partnering with Myanmar. Japan, for example, supported the Rakhine State Investment Fair in February 2019, despite the world’s outcry over the genocide committed against the Rohingya in Rakhine State. This investment fair was ostensibly to encourage investment in the area, with the justification that economic development in the region will ease the conflict and violence that has devastated Rakhine State.

Geopolitical motivations, and the rivalry between Japan and China, means that inking economic deals comes with supporting the Myanmar government as it tries to evade accountability for the genocide that the Myanmar military inflicted upon the Rohingya in Rakhine State. The Japanese Ambassador to Myanmar denied that genocide had occurred shortly after the country faced charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague, which was vehemently denounced by Japan-based Rohingya activists. Japan had also opposed the establishment of the UN-mandated Independent International Fact-Finding Mission in Myanmar, while continuously voting in abstention on resolutions pertaining to the situation in Myanmar, both at the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly. China has similarly provided protection to Myanmar, blocking any moves towards a UN Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court for committing international human rights and humanitarian law crimes, namely, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Kachin, Shan and Rakhine States, as well as genocide in Rakhine State.

Meanwhile, the projects that are going to go ahead come at the expense of the social and environmental wellbeing of communities in conflict-affected ethnic areas. Two days before President Xi’s visit, over 40 largely Kachin-based civil society organizations issued a statement calling for the cancellation of the Chinese-backed Myitsone Dam, a huge project that is currently suspended but China has been attempting to restart. Located at an extremely important environmental and cultural site, and already having displaced thousands of people, if the dam were to be built, an area the size of Singapore would be flooded. As Tu Hkawng, coordinator of one of the CSOs behind the statement, Airavati, stated, “If those projects go ahead without listening to our voices, there will be more negative effects than positive. We would like to let President Xi know what is actually happening on the ground. We also want to urge the Myanmar government to listen to our voices.” Similarly, regarding Kyaukphyu in Rakhine State, a watchdog group urged that China addresses issues around land confiscation, while the largest ethnic political party in Shan State – the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy – warned of the negative impact that destructive projects have on armed conflict.

As a statement by 79 Myanmar CSOs articulated in relation to the case at the ICJ, “We also urge the international community to show their solidarity in pursuing justice and accountability in Myanmar.” Solidarity does not come from denying violence, kicking people off their land for economic zones, or exploiting natural resources for energy hungry industrialisation processes. Rather than focusing on destructive economic development projects and following a well-worn path of economic liberalization that is based on profit and exploitation, countries such as China and Japan should be supporting processes of accountability, justice and peace that are an instrumental foundation for achieving a more progressive, grassroots, democratic form of development.


[1] One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.

Resources from the past week


Statements and Press Releases

Open Letter from Civil Society Organizations in Kachin State to the President of the People’s Republic of China

By 52 Civil Society Organizations in Kachin State

မြန်မာ့အဖွဲ့အစည်းများမှ တရားမျှတမှုနှင့် တာဝန်ယူမှုတာဝန်ခံမှုအတွက် ရပ်တည်ချက်

By 79 Myanmar Organization

Burma/Myanmar CSOs Stand for Justice and Accountability

By 79 Myanmar Organization

British Government Welcomes Rohingya Genocide Case at ICJ

By Burma Campaign UK

New Briefing Lists 149 Burmese Military Company Products and Brands

By Burma Campaign UK

AA နဲ့ပတ်သက်မှု ရှိသည်ဟု စွပ်စွဲခြင်းခံနေရသူရဲ့ ဇနီးသည်အား တပ်မတော်က ပြင်းထန်စွာ ညှင်းပန်းနှိပ်စက်ရာမှ ဒဏ်ရာပြင်းတဲ့အတွက် ဆေးရုံတက်ခဲ့ရ

By Chin Human Rights Organization

Tatmadaw Torture Chin Woman in Village School After Husband is Accused of Arakan Army (AA) Connections

By Chin Human Rights Organization

Request for the Indication of Provisional Measures: The Court to Deliver Its Order on Thursday 23 January 2020 at 10 a.m.

By International Court of Justice (ICJ)

မန္တလေးတက္ကသိုလ်ကျောင်းသားသပိတ်နှင့် ပိတ်ဆို့တားမြစ်ခြင်းများအပေါ် သဘောထားထုတ်ပြန်ချက်

By Kayah State Students Union

Myanmar: UN Expert to Carry Out Her Final Mission by Visiting Bangladesh and Thailand

By Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights



The Boycott List

By Burma Campaign UK

Annual Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Chin State & Western Myanmar 2019

By Chin Human Rights Organization

Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”