Roads offer ‘profound potential’ for Burma

Successful implementation of transport projects connecting Burma to its neighbouring countries could pave the way for “bringing Burma into the international community”, a leading economics expert on Burma has said.

With a number of transport projects linking Burma, India, China and Bangladesh currently in the pipeline, the military-ruled country is looking to foster strong trade relations with its neighbours. Burma is also part of the Asian Highway (AH) Network also known as the Great Asian Highway, which is aimed at increasing connectivity among Asian countries.

According to Sean Turnell, from the Macquerie University in Sydney, Australia, roads connecting Burma to Asian giants India and China are of significant importance. While India is currently funding the US$365 million Kaladan multi-modal project that links the northeastern region of the country to Burma through land and water, China has been trying hard to see a roadway connecting its southwestern Yunnan province to Dhaka via Burma materialise.

India’s shortage of agricultural goods in the northeastern region has prompted a keen interest in the massive infrastructure investment in Burma. “India is an incredible growth market for Burma’s agricultural products, in particular in beans and pulses. One of the problems, though, is that many of the products enter India in spoilt conditions because of poor infrastructure. So something that connects India more quickly to Burma would hold a great potential for the country’s [Burma’s] future,” Turnell said.

On the other hand, while the road connecting Yunnan to Dhaka is primarily aimed at increasing bilateral trade between China and Bangladesh, it potentially opens up Burma to more of Asia and, effectively, to the international community. Bangladesh is an increasingly important market for Burma’s agricultural products and China has its interests in minerals and gas that are being pursued through the Shwe gas project.

“It is difficult to put down in terms of figures how these transport projects are going to benefit Burma. If they do materialise, the effect on Burma could be profound, [they] could be part of the whole movement towards bringing the country into the international community. [It could] just make [Burma] more rational and a more reasonable actor in the international commercial area. They could also drive costs down for manufacturing and primary product markets and so on,” Turnell explained.

Although the prospects of these development undertakings sound promising, whether they materialise or not is a serious question. The Asian Highway Network is one such project that has hit a roadblock because of the environmental concerns it raised, while labour law violations and human rights abuses invariably surround any development ventures being undertaken in Burma.

Turnell remains pessimistic about the progress and outcome of the projects in the

pipeline. “Some of the problems that bring infrastructure projects to a halt in Burma are connected to corruption and various other practices of the government itself. Some of it is a function of the lack of the similar infrastructure. For instance, Burma has terrible problems in generating electricity, in allowing plants and equipment to get in where roads and bridges need to be built,” he elaborated.

Given the nature of various sanctions on Burma, trade with European and North American countries has become a no-go for the ruling generals and their business cronies. In this climate, its prime targets remain India and China – two countries that have allegedly turned a blind eye to the deplorable labour conditions and environmental consequences of their infrastructure goals.

“Particularly in the case of China, the construction companies that come in have no interest whatsoever in environmental considerations. And what they do is bring in many Chinese workers, so employment opportunities for the Burmese people is reduced,” Turnell said. Considering these factors, long-term impacts of these infrastructure projects might well be negative for Burma, despite the short-term boost in trade they promise.

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