July 9 (Reuters) – Chinese companies who have poured billions of dollars into energy or other projects in Myanmar risk a violent backlash if they do not address the concerns of local ethnic groups, the head of a non-government group said on Friday.
The risk could be worse in regions that are not ethnically Burmese that have for years run their own affairs and maintained their own armed forces, said Emma Leslie, Cambodia-based director for the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.
Those people could resent deals that are cut between Chinese firms and Myanmar’s central government without any perceived local benefit, she said.
Beijing is the former Burma’s third-biggest foreign investor and trade partner. Chinese firms are building a port and energy pipelines that will feed oil and gas into China’s landlocked southwest, and are involved in numerous other projects.
Despite the diplomatic cover China has provided for its isolated, military-run southern neighbour in the face of pressure from the West over a slew of human rights issues, Chinese investment has proved controversial in Myanmar.
Rights groups say Chinese companies ride roughshod over environmental concerns, and that Myanmar’s army has forced people out to make way for China’s investments.
In April, a series of bombs exploded at a controversial hydropower project site being jointly built by a Chinese company in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state. [ID:nSGE63G036]
“There is a real concern that the grievances of ethnic communities along the China-Myanmar border is a real risk for Chinese investment,” Leslie told the Foreign Correspondents Club of China. “There are already indications of that. A bombing of a hydro-dam is an alert signal. People are not getting the benefit of that investment.”
Leslie said that a lack of information about what was happening to land earmarked for development fuelled anger.
“There’s one part of Kachin State called the ‘confluence’, which is very well known for families going for picnics, and it’s a very favoured place among the Kachin to hang out together,” she said.
“But that will soon be a hydro-dam, and nobody knows when it happens, how is happens, who gets to benefit from it. All people know is that it’s Chinese-backed,” Leslie added.
“When you’re in a situation where you can’t retaliate against your own government, you can retaliate against perhaps investment by outsiders.” (Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Alex Richardson)