All is not well in China-Myanmar relations. There is evidence to substantiate that China has been exerting a negative influence on Myanmar, which is making its slow but calibrated transition to a full- fledged democracy.
These tensions predate concerns that China was fueling Myanmar’s wars, and are a fall-out of China’s business interests.
Though the New York Times reported this February itself that Chinese-led development projects have been stoking ethnic tensions and military conflicts in Myanmar, it is only in the past couple of weeks “ground reports” have started trickling out highlighting the gravity of the situation.
Engineers and workers are on a pen down strike in at least four major ventures of the Chinese government owned companies in Myanmar.
One of these ventures that have been badly hit by the strike is the Letpadaung copper mine project undertaken by the Chinese mining major, Wanbao Mining Limited in the Sagaing Division.
“Our staff, both Myanmar and Chinese, work closely together to create a vibrant, socially and environmentally responsible company. Mining is a long term commitment and we take our responsibility to Myanmar society very seriously. Our surrounding villages are not only our neighbors, but they provide us with the overwhelming majority of our employees. This has helped create a unique family feeling which we are very proud of,” the company grandly declares on its web site (www.myanmarwanbao.com.mm/en/about-us/about-mwcml-mining.html).
But reality check presents a different picture at the mine which is expected to enter into production phase this year.
Discrimination in wages has been a sore point at the Myanmar Wanbao Mining Copper. Chinese workers are paid between 300 and 1,500 dollars while Myanmar workers are given anywhere between 100 and 300 dollars leading clashes between angry Myanmar workers and Chinese security forces at the plants.
Such discrimination in the wage structure is not unique at overseas Chinese projects. Even in Sri Lanka, the Chinese managers are facing the ire of local workers as they are not paid wages at the rate the expatriate Chinese are paid.
Reports from Myanmar capital, Naypyidaw, as also the commercial capital, Yangon show that workers are up in arms at Yeywa Hydro-power Plant, a venture of China’s engineering and construction giant, Sinohydro Corporation, which has a global footprint.
Located in the center of Myanmar in the Shan state, the project is tapping the waters of on Myitnge River to generate 930 Megawats of power.
But like at the copper plant, here at the hydro electricity generator also, locals are paid less than their expatriate Chinese colleagues; this has created resentment among the locals who accuse China of acting like the British East India Company of yore. The pen down strike began on April 9 as a result. It has spread to other Chinese projects like Myanmar-Xian Xi, and Pay Pauk Oxian.
Observers aver that wage differential is a norm rather than an exception at all Chinese overseas ventures. Myanmar is not being singled out, according to them, but in the surcharged atmosphere such fine distinction has few takers with demands mounting in favor of “equal work-equal pay.”
Taking a dig at Sinohydro, International Rivers Policy Director Peter Bosshard says the Dam Builder has “an opportunity to prove that it values its reputation and its role as an ambassador of the Chinese state more than the short-term profits of a destructive contract.”
His critique is that to this day, Sinohydro has not published the sustainable development framework which it prepared in 2011. Instead in June 2014 the company adopted new Sustainable Development and Ethics Policies, which are considerably weaker than the previous framework.
“The new policies take a strong stance against corruption, but make only vague commitments to environmental protection and community relations,” argues Bosshard.
On Apr 14, the Maldives government asked Sino Hydro to build an airport apron at the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport in Male. The project is worth US D 9 million. The Economic and Youth Council at the President’s Office said that Sinohydro will also renovate, resurface, and rehabilitate the runway of the airport. Indications as of now are that the Chinese major will make no exception in its labor policy and will stick to its time tested two-wage structure in Maldives as well.
Chinese Weapons Confiscated
During a recent offensive on the Arakan Army, rifles, bullets and other equipment, which are of Chinese make, were confiscated. These weapons are believed to have reached Arakan Army headquarters in Chin state via Shan state.
Following this security along the route has been tightened against the backdrop of reports in Asia Sentinel that China has been fomenting trouble on Myanmar’s Border.
Both sides were locked in a spat after four Chinese were allegedly killed and another nine were injured in Myanmar’s campaign this March against ethnic minority rebels in the region bordering China.
“It is not entirely clear from the Chinese statement that those killed were actually in China at the time or they were killed while in Myanmar,” the Asia Sentinel reported adding that the Myanmar military itself has “denied” responsibility for the act
Significant in this context is the remark of Matthew Smith in The New York Times that China’s stance as a benevolent mediator in Myanmar’s many internal conflicts and its treatment of asylum seekers is “far less altruistic than Beijing cares to admit.”
Smith is the executive director of Fortify Rights and a 2014 Echoing Green Global Fellow.