A Chinese state company has resumed preliminary work in Myanmar on a railway from China to the Rakhine State coast, two senior Myanma Railways officials have told Frontier.

The railway is to be a key component of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, linking Kunming in China’s landlocked Yunnan province with a planned special economic zone and deep-sea port in Rakhine’s Kyaukphyu Township. It is being developed by China Eryuan Engineering Group, a subsidiary of state-owned China Railway Engineering Group, in partnership with Myanma Railways, a division of Myanmar’s Ministry of Transport and Communications.

The mega project passes through areas of Shan State and Rakhine where ethnic armed organisations fight regularly with the Myanmar military – and with each other – as well as crossing parts of Myanmar’s central dry zone where armed resistance has raged since the 2021 military coup. Resistance groups say they will attack the project to deny revenue and other benefits to the regime.

In Myanmar, the planned railway will be the first to reach the Chinese border, replacing an existing line built during the British colonial era that runs from Mandalay to Lashio. The new line will span roughly 1,000 kilometres and be divided into two sections, the first going from the border town of Muse in northern Shan to Mandalay and the second connecting Mandalay with Kyaukphyu. 

In 2019, China and Myanmar approved the route for the first segment and a feasibility study was conducted. Following the military coup in February 2021, an environmental assessment was conducted later that year and approved in 2022. However, preparations for the second segment were at a standstill until late last year. 

“A joint committee of the China Eryuan Engineering Group and Myanmar’s transport ministry have been meeting in Myanmar to decide on the railroad lines, discuss where they’re going to lay the tracks for the Mandalay-Kyaukphyu portion of the railway and which townships the train route will pass through,” a Myanma Railways official said earlier this month.

This and all other interviews with Myanmar transport officials were done undercover by Frontier reporters after earlier interview requests were rejected.

The joint committee has also been consulting with local branches of the General Administration Department and the Ministry of Construction about the route, another Myanma Railways official from the Transport Planning department said, adding that “Chinese workers have been coming and going [from Myanmar] regularly.”

The Chinese company has yet to publicly comment on any developments. However, a channel run by Chinese engineering students on Chinese social media platform WeChat published a post in September last year quoting Mr Xu Chaoshuai, a deputy director at CREEG, as saying he was in Myanmar “participating in the preliminary work on the Mandalay-Kyaukphyu section of the China-Myanmar Railway”. An accompanying photo appears to show Chinese company representatives attending a meeting in a Myanma Railways office but the caption provides no further details.

However, construction work even on the Muse to Mandalay segment could still be several years away, and the entire project remains in serious doubt for as long as conflict persists across Myanmar and the country’s political crisis remains unresolved.

Touch and go

Myanmar Railways and CREEG signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2011. However, the Myanmar government of the time, led by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, suspended the project due to concerns that it would unfairly favour China and the agreement expired in 2014.

In 2018, under the subsequent National League for Democracy government, another MoU was signed and the following year, CREEG carried out a feasibility study on the Muse to Mandalay portion of the railway. Chinese President Xi Jinping presented the findings to his Myanmar counterparts during a state visit to Nay Pyi Taw in January 2020. The survey concluded that the Muse to Mandalay railway would cost US$7.6 billion, the Transport Planning official said, although other reports have put the figure closer to $9 billion. 

But the NLD government shared the same unease as its predecessor. To minimise the risk, it announced in mid-2020 that it had invited an unnamed Swiss company to scrutinise the project. However, no findings were ever made public, and Frontier has not seen any evidence that a third party is involved with the project today.

Mr Jason Tower, Myanmar country director at the United States Institute of Peace, said that the NLD government likely prioritised the Muse to Mandalay section because it was “not comfortable going along with the entire line” given the high cost and the access it would offer China.

The onset of COVID-19 in early 2020 and the closure of the China-Myanmar border shortly after also made groundwork for a feasibility study for the Mandalay to Kyaukphyu section nearly impossible. 

“COVID-19 slowed everything down. Not only did it raise prices on everything but most of the Chinese workers and management all left so there was a crash on all projects,” explained Mr Gregory B. Poling, director of the Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.  

Before the project had a chance to recover, the military overthrew the NLD government in the coup of February 2021 and has since violently cracked down on mass peaceful protests, sparking a broadening civil war.

But China continued to push for a feasibility study for the Mandalay to Kyaukphyu line and Myanma Railways announced later in 2021 that a report would be finalised the following year. However, the Transport Planning official told Frontier the survey has yet to be carried out. 

A ‘political mess’

Although fighting in Myanmar hasn’t slowed, last year CREEG reconvened with its new partners under the junta-controlled Ministry of Transport and Communications to restart work. 

Isolated on the world stage, the junta, known as the State Administration Council, has been more willing to embrace China than preceding governments. Tower said the regime is likely eager to move forward with the railway because it would “gain a lot in terms of legitimacy and credibility as an economic actor”.

In April last year, the junta’s Minister of Foreign Affairs U Wunna Maung Lwin met with his counterpart Mr Wang Yi in China. (Both have since left those positions). In a press release following the meeting, China said that it was “ready to work with Myanmar to implement the outcomes of President Xi Jinping’s historic visit to Myanmar” and that the “two sides should advance the construction of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor”.

Initial reports indicated that the railway would follow a similar path to the Shwe pipelines that funnel oil and gas from the Rakhine coast to Yunnan. These parallel pipelines run from the coast over the Rakhine mountains and on to Magway town in the Dry Zone, before heading north to Mandalay and then to northern Shan. 

While most of the proposed route remains unchanged, the Transport Planning official told Frontier the section between Magway and Mandalay had been changed so that it includes Nyaung-U, the town that hosts Myanmar’s premier archaeological site, Bagan. 

The official said that CREEG outlined four possible paths in its report on route selection submitted in September last year, the same month that Chinese representatives were depicted visiting Myanmar on social media. The Chinese team advocated for the Bagan route and one via Meiktila, another town in Mandalay Region.

One of the Myanmar Railways officials said a third proposed path would have stretched the railway further south through the capital Nay Pyi Taw but was seen as superfluous given plans for an upgraded, Japanese-backed railway connecting Mandalay to the capital and then on to Yangon. The official did not comment on the fourth route.

The Transport Planning official said junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing made the final call. “The SAC chairman directed us to go with route number one [through Bagan] for tourism purposes and to develop the parts of central Myanmar where the railway would pass,” they said. 

Tower noted that both Beijing and the junta have been trying to resurrect their tourism sectors and may see adding a stop in Bagan as a low-risk method of doing this. Bagan, which was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2019, was one of the most popular destinations in the country before the pandemic and the coup sank the number of foreign visitors.

It’s also an area that has seen limited fighting since the coup. Tower noted that with Beijing’s help, the regime managed to convene a meeting in Bagan in July last year of foreign ministers from the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation group, which includes the countries of mainland Southeast Asia plus China.

But the same can’t be said of other stops along the route, like Magway, which has become a hotbed of violence in the last two years. The Transport Planning official conceded that the “political mess” has caused “a lot of trouble in the transport sector” but declined to elaborate.  

China is likely on high alert after several of its investments were targeted by resistance groups unhappy with Beijing’s close ties to the junta, including the Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Region and sections of the Shwe pipelines in Mandalay Region.

The deputy commander of the Myaing People’s Defence Force, whose nom-de-guerre is Bo Cross, told Frontierthat while he doesn’t know much about the railway, his group, which is based in Magway Region, is “ready to attack any junta projects” and is “not worried about upsetting the Chinese.”

Ko Naung Thurein, the head of the political division of the Magway-based People Revolution Army, said his group also wouldn’t hold back. “If they were building a railway in the interest of the people, we would not attack it. But this railway will not benefit the people – it is only for the junta and the Chinese – so we will definitely attack.” 

Chugging along

While delays continue to stall construction in Myanmar, China has pushed ahead, opening a line between the Yunnan cities of Dali and Baoshan in July last year. All that remains is the 196km track between Baoshan and Ruili, on the border with Myanmar opposite Muse, which is set to be completed by December this year. 

In May last year, Chinese state-media created confusion by reporting that freight trains were already running between Chongqing in China and Mandalay, a distance of 2,000km, and claimed the new route would shed “20 days” of travel time.

The Transport Planning official and a third Myanma Railways official told Frontier this was impossible because the railway hasn’t been built. The first official went as far as to accuse China of “spreading propaganda” but conceded that Chinese media may have misunderstood reports of cargo shipments that were transported partly by train and by truck.

Nonetheless, preparatory work has progressed on the Muse to Mandalay segment of the railway. 

In mid-2021, Ever Green Tech Environmental Services and Training Co., Ltd, a Myanmar consulting company, carried out an environmental assessment for this section, an official from the Environmental Impact Assessment committee in Mandalay told Frontier in another undercover interview. The company was first brought on board to help with the railway in 2019, when it carried out several town hall meetings across Mandalay Region.

“Ever Green submitted [the] Environment Impact Assessment for the Muse-Mandalay railway line. In 2022, [Myanmar’s] environment ministry hosted several meetings with around 17 or 18 directors from different ministries to review the assessments,” the official said. “In the end the ministry recommended that the railway go ahead based on the EIA reports.” 

The EIA report, which is publicly available, says that “the construction of the project” will be carried out by CREEG “under the supervision” of Myanma Railways and the transport ministry.

The EIA also confirmed that the railway would go through several towns in Shan that have recently experienced fighting between the military and ethnic armed groups . One station is planned in Hseni, where Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and PDFs have recently clashed with the military. The Kachin Independence Army also fought the military in September last year near Nam Hpat Kar in Kutkai Township, where a substation is planned.

The EIA committee official did not comment on these security risks or the concerns raised by environmental activists over the project’s lack of transparency. Ever Green did not respond to Frontier’s numerous requests for comment.

U April Kyu Kyu, director of Save the Natural Resource, or SaNar, an NGO focused on natural resource governance in Shan, said the EIA report “does not represent the voices of the people” because the committee only consulted with “a very small number of communities that were all organised by the junta.”

He said that people in Shan are concerned about the project contributing to land grabbing and increased fighting, between ethnic armed organisations and the military, and between rival ethnic armed groups.

But it looks as though construction is at best two years away. The Transport Planning official said work on the Muse to Mandalay segment is not expected to start until 2025. Tower speculated that several lengthy geological surveys must be completed first. 

No timeline has been established for the Mandalay to Kyaukphyu portion, but Poling noted that without the entireline, the railway won’t be of much use to China. 

He said that although the project is “not going to be a huge economic benefit to Beijing overall at the national level, it does help open up trade for Yunnan province.”

“This seems to be about development of the interior and in that sense getting to Mandalay doesn’t really help. The whole strategic rationale only works if you can get all the way to the coast – stopping in Mandalay is never going to pay for the cost of the railway.”