SIM Report: Southeast Asia - Issue 2
In the neighbouring countries of Laos and Myanmar, projects forming a part of Beijing’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – which comprises infrastructure development largely financed on Chinese loans – have continued to involve land grabs without due compensation. This has increasingly stoked anti-Chinese sentiment and fomented rare demonstrations. Such outbursts of sinophobic civil unrest are likely to increase in the medium- to long-term as BRI projects progress and expand.
In Laos, construction of a BRI railway linking the southern Chinese city of Kunming to the Lao capital Vientiane is over halfway complete, with services commencing in December 2021. Recent reported land grabs without due compensation in the course of the railway’s construction are likely to intensify anti-Chinese sentiment. Such tendencies have periodically flared up due to the forced displacement caused by land grabs, including a rare demonstration by Laotian villagers in July 2015 over a joint Lao-Chinese development project in Bokeo province. In 2016-2017 there was a series of attacks on Chinese workers in Laos – including a vehicle-borne improved explosive device (VBIED) incident in January 2016 – suspected to have been motivated by anti-Chinese sentiment linked to infrastructure projects, prompting China and Laos to enhance security cooperation in 2016.
Such incidents are likely more frequent but underreported due to their political sensitivity. Laos has a stringently controlled media, and press advocacy organisation Reporters Without Borders has classified the country as a journalistic ‘black hole’. Chinese media is similarly restricted and coverage of incidents potentially tarnishing China’s presence in Laos is likely limited.
However, further probable civil unrest is unlikely to hinder the completion of the railway. This is due to the overall lack of transparency around the project. Furthermore, Laos’s population is largely unconnected to the internet, which is likely to impede efforts to mobilise against perceived injustices.
In Myanmar, the government of the northern state of Kachin is planning to sign a Memorandum of Agreement in early 2020 to establish the Myitkyina Economic Development Zone, a China-backed special economic zone (SEZ) for the BRI. The project is located 25km from the Kachin capital Myitkyina, the northernmost railway terminus and river port in Myanmar. It is expected to cost over USD400 million and include nearly 5,000 buildings and 500 factories. Construction is slated to begin in early 2020.
Locals are complaining about not knowing who the landowners are, and the landowners are complaining because someone is letting the Chinese survey their land. The worries arise from the threat of land confiscations; Kachin state has been affected by land grabs by Chinese firms operating banana plantations. Local political parties have threatened protests if their concerns are left unaddressed. China-backed projects have incited large protests in Kachin state – including over the Myitsone mega dam in April – amid growing anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar. Aside from the SEZ, other Chinese projects currently under way such as a railway between the northern city of Mandalay and the town of Muse at the border with China, are raising protest risks across the country. As Chinese infrastructure projects gather pace in Laos and Myanmar, there are likely going to be attendant increases in civil unrest risks, posing major political challenges to their respective governments.
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