Myanmar’s Troubled Sittwe International Seaport Awaits Opening
India’s beset ‘Look East’ bet founders on junta’s two-year-old civil war
By: Nava Thakuria
As Myanmar’s Sittwe international port awaits its long-delayed opening, India’s companion Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project is moving toward completion amid what can only be described as a fraught situation from a long list of different angles, not least the brutal civil war that the Myanmar junta is waging against its own people.
Against Delhi’s ambitious plans for a deep-water port on the Bay of Bengal, much of the transport’s route is in the hands of the Arakan Army, allies of the Kachin Independence Army, which often targets Indian workers and installations. Directly across the border from India is Myanmar’s Rakhine State, peopled by the minority Rohingya who are under relentless pressure from the ethnic majority, thousands fleeing to Bangladesh, which is nervous about the flood of refugees escaping ethnic violence for its impoverished and overcrowded eastern region. Land compensation issues, natural hilly terrain, and the Covid-19 pandemic have combined to help slow works for years.
Despite all of these problems, India’s goal is to counter overwhelming Chinese and Russian influence in the troubled country, which is fast becoming an international pariah.
Against this backdrop, the Kaladan project is aimed at opening the landlocked northeastern part of India with a major seaport. The troubled, isolated, and alienated Assam region, which is almost cut off from the rest of India geographically, is expected to link Mizoram State through riverine transport and roadways to Myanmar’s Rakhine State, hopefully to the benefit of both. Dredging in the Kaladan river to make it navigable for freight vessels is completed along with the final touches to the Paletwa water-to-land terminal despite occasional attacks. The 117 km two-lane road connecting the Myanmar border with Lawngtlai is almost completed.
The Kaladan River originates in central Mizoram where it is locally known as the Chhimtuipui River. It enters Myanmar and crosses two underdeveloped states Arakan (Rakhine) and Chin before flowing into the sea. A 1999-2000 feasibility study found that the river is navigable from its confluence at Sittwe, the Arakan capital, to Paletwa, the capital of Chin State. From there the river becomes shallow, with road transport developed from Paletwa to the Indo-Myanmar border.
Ocean-going vessels are to arrive at Sittwe from different sea routes to offload goods to be transported 160-odd km. via the Kaladan river towards Paletwa, then will be carried by truck through a 109 km two-lane highway to enter India in southern Mizoram. Conceived by the Union government in New Delhi many years ago, the project was formalized in April 2008 under the government’s Look East Policy with a primary aim to develop trade with Myanmar and other Southeast Asian nations to help people of both neighboring countries economically. The hope was that economic development would help to transform Naypyidaw, the Myanmar government capital, into a multi-party democratic regime with influences from the large democracy to the west.
But New Delhi’s initiative has been blown sky-high by the Burmese generals’ February 2021 coup. Myanmar today is in the middle of civil war, with the Tatmadaw, the army, indiscriminately killing thousands, while large numbers of civilians have taken guns on their hands to attack military personnel and their close relatives.
Thousands have been killed from either side. As Asia Sentinel reported on February 6, at least 17,000 people have been arrested including 2,232 members of the National League for Democracy, which resoundingly won the 2020 national election, and 84 have been killed. Twenty-five died either during interrogation or in prison, while 59 were murdered outside of custody by the military, police, or junta-backed Pyusawhti militias, forcing NLD members to live in constant fear of reprisal. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize-winning head of the NLD, has been jailed for 33 years – at age 77. Many media personnel have also been jailed, rural areas are being destroyed by soldiers and millions of villagers rendered homeless. Many localities are still under direct control of ethnic armed groups and the ruling junta chief Min Aung Hlaing recently admitted that they are not fully in control of the country.
Nonetheless, there has been a slight improvement in the socio-political situation following an agreement with the Arakan armed rebels. The Rakhine government recently announced that the Sittwe construction work has been completed and a government spokesperson, U Hla Thein, told local media the opening ceremony will be held soon. Built with financial support from the Indian government, it will be designated as an international seaport.
Very recently, India’s Ports, Shipping and Waterways Minister Sarbananda Sonowal commented in Guwahati, the Assam capital, that the Sittwe port has been readied for practical use and that the port would help change traditional trade routes to connect Northeast through the 20-km wide Siliguri corridor, the so-called “chicken’s neck” that connects the Assam region to India proper over the top of Bangladesh, which all but bifurcates the nation. Sonowal said that the recent cabinet, chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had approved the revised cost for the project.
But not all is yet well for the project, as many organizations including the Kaladan Movement, the Arakan Rivers Network, the Chin Human Rights Organization, and the Zo Indigenous Forum, among others have criticized the initiative and demanded comprehensive environmental, social and public health impact assessments before it is allowed to become operational. Speaking to Asia Sentinel from Aizawl, the Mizoram-based Zo Indigenous Forum’s director C. Lalremruata insisted that the project should acquire forest clearances first and that indigenous peoples be compensated fairly as they have been forced to leave their ancestral lands for the project.
To make the Kaladan project fully operational, a sense of security in western Myanmar will be necessary irrespective of the regime in Naypyidaw. The present group of military rulers now proposes a national election by this year but maintains all tricks to bar the NLD leaders from contesting in the polls. The junta appears certain to continue its political grip over the under-developed nation as the luckless 55 million Burmese wait for better days ahead, hoping against hope.