Myanmar Arrests 4 More Chinese Over Banana Plantation in Protected Forest

Authorities in northern Myanmar's Kachin state have arrested four Chinese nationals for illegally entering the country and working on banana plantations, bringing the number of Chinese in police custody to nine in the last two weeks, a police official said.

During surprise security checks, officials from Kachin state's Forestry Department and Immigration Department discovered two Chinese from the Nantwah Generation Star company in the Nantwah forest reserve and another two from the Malikha Dragon company in the Washaung forest reserve without permission and arrested them, said officer Kyaw Soe at the Waingmaw Police Station.

The Forestry Department found them there and filed a case, he told RFA's Myanmar Service. Two were found in the Nantwah forest reserve and another two in the Washaung forest reserve on May 25 for a total of four.

Surprise checks by the forestry and immigration departments discovered that they were intruding in the reserve forests and have filed a case under Section 40(a) of the Forestry Act of 40(a) at the moment.

The four will also face charges under Myanmar's immigration law, sources said without elaborating.

The investigation is still underway, and authorities are examining evidence, Kyaw Soe said.

Officials of the companies the detained Chinese nationals were working for were unavailable for comment.

An administrator of Nantwah village declined to give his name, but said there are dozens of Chinese nationals working on banana plantations in the area, whose vehicles have disrupted the flow of local traffic.

There are about 40 to 50 in Nantwah alone, he told RFA. It may be up to hundreds if every banana plantation is counted.

Some have been granted permission by the government [to work in Myanmar], but some are here without permission, he added. About half of them are [here] illegally.

Earlier this month, forestry department officials filed charges against five other Chinese nationals and their company manager for allegedly expanding a banana plantation into protected forests, village administrative and police officials told RFA at the time.

The six people from Jinghphaw Nadi Company had been operating the plantations near Aung Myae Thar No. 1 and No. 2 villages in Waingmaw township since 2018 and had expanded their growing areas by more than 300 acres in the two communities, illegally occupying part of a forest reserve, they said.

The company manager was released on bail for health reasons, but the others remain in the township jail.

Controversial China-backed tissue-culture banana plantations, banned in Laos and Thailand, began appearing in Kachin state about 12 years ago and have quickly expanded in Waingmaw township, which lies alongside the Irrawaddy River near the state capital Myitkyina.

A research report issued earlier this year by the local NGO Land Security and Environmental Conservation Network indicated that that there are more than 100,000 acres of banana plantations in the state's Myitkyina and Bhamo districts.

State residents frequently complain about the downsides of banana cultivation, including the loss of farmland, deforestation, the destruction of natural habitats, low wages for laborers, and damage to their social and economic well-being.

Earlier this year, Kyaw Kyaw Win, Kachin state's minister of agriculture, livestock, and irrigation, told RFA that officials had not issued permits for banana plantations, although some companies had planted banana trees on fallow land and on farmland where fruit trees are allowed to be grown.

At the time, he also said he would submit a proposal to the state government to set up a special committee whose subcommittees would look into illegal plantations and their impacts on the environment and local labor.

Network demands Myitsone documents

A newly formed nationwide network that wants the government to permanently suspend the controversial Myitsone Dam, a Chinese hydropower project also located in Kachin state, called on the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government to make public within a month the contract between the Chinese company building the dam and the former military junta that ruled the country when the deal was struck.

At a press conference in Yangon, the network warned the government that if people's expectations are not met by canceling the Chinese dam project, the NLD will not see another term when the next general elections are held in 2020.

If the ruling government fails to fulfill the people's calls for the cancellation of this dam project once and for all, the party would lose public support in the upcoming election, and it will not have an opportunity for another term, farmworkers rights activist Zaw Yum, spokesman of the nationwide network, said during the press conference.

The NLD government, which has said that it will disclose any deal it reaches concerning the dam, has a responsibility to make public the terms of the original deal, he added.

It is totally unacceptable that the government is failing to honor its promises on this issue, Zaw Yum said. If the ruling government uses this issue as leverage again to win the upcoming election, it will be an utter manipulation of and dishonesty to the voters. It will be apparent that it only works to fulfill the interests of a handful of people rather than that of all the people.

Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Su Kyi told voters during the campaign for the 2015 general election that once the NLD party formed a government, it would issue the contract terms of the Myitsone Dam project as one of its first actions.

But the NLD government, now in its fourth of five years, has yet to fulfill the promise.

The members of the network said it would still not be acceptable if the ruling government chose to issue the terms later � instead of within a month � closer to the election date.

Attorney Kyi Myint, who advises the network on the termination of the Myitsone Dam project, stressed that the ruling NLD government should stop ignoring the demands from the public and cancel the project once and for all.

We are exercising our rights and responsibilities as members of civil society as guaranteed in Article 390 of the constitution, he said.

Far from recognizing us, now the ruling government is ignoring us and trying to undermine our voices, he said. If it keep acting like this, it will see the consequences in the 2020 election.

Conflict with national missions

Formed on May 2, the nationwide network comprises more than 100 activists, scholars, authors, environmental conservationists, and famous individuals.

Aung Soe Myint, another network spokesman, noted that the group's activities focus solely on the permanent cancellation of the dam project, and not other Chinese-backed infrastructure projects that are part of China's massive Belt and Road Initiative, such as a deep sea port in Rakhine state and road networks throughout Myanmar.

We are focused only on the Myitsone Dam project, he said. We have no relations with groups protesting other projects in the country.

Members of the network also said if the government allowed construction of the project to resume, despite widespread opposition and protests, it would pose a direct conflict with other national missions such as national reconciliation and ending internal armed conflict, instilling unity and equality among ethnic groups, ensuring peace and economic development in poor regions, and the ultimate goal of establishing a federal union.

The network said it will submit written appeals for the release of Myitsone Dam contract terms to President Win Myint, the country's vice presidents, Aung San Suu Kyi, speakers of the upper and lower houses of the national parliament, government ministers, and all regional and state chief ministers.

Begun in December 2009, the hydropower project was put on hold by former President Thein Sein in 2011 after widespread public protests over potential flooding and other environmental impacts and anger that 90 percent of its electricity would be exported to China.

Suspension of the project has dismayed China, which has been pushing Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD government to allow the U.S. $3.6 billion, 6,000-megawatt project to resume, arguing that Chinese companies have already invested heavily in it.

A week ago, Hong Liang, China's outgoing ambassador to Myanmar said expressed serious concern over the project and said that the two countries had agreed to find a solution that would not damage bilateral relations, the Myanmar Times reported.

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