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August 26, 2019

Myanmar has potential to be Asia’s maritime hub

The geographic location of Myanmar places her in a very strategic position. Many centuries ago, this fact was recognised and proven to be correct. If one would bother to study the world atlas, they are bound to realise that our country is right at the centre of the Asian continent. It is bordered by two of the most populous and fastest developing countries — China and India — and and the well-developed country of Thailand. If properly managed, we could develop our country into an important gateway connecting East Asia and Southeast Asia to South Asia and farther afield, which will be much beneficial to our economic and geopolitical status.
Looking back in time, it can be found that since the early 18th century, the British East India Company, the trading powerhouse of those days, was very interested in creating a trading route through Burma to the land-locked Chinese province of Yunnan. They sought the permission of the Burmese King to explore a possible land route through Burma to Yunnan. Their endeavour met failure as the members of that expedition were massacred by the rebels in Yunnan.
During the British colonial days in 1937, just before the war between the British and the Japanese broke out, a strategic motorway — the world renowned Burma Road — was constructed between Burma and China. That road served as the main lifeline for the Chinese Nationalist Army, which was resisting the Japanese occupation during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). Military equipment, arms, ammunition, vehicles and other supplies needed for the war effort were transported via that road by the United States of America to aid the Chinese Nationalist Army.
When Burma was occupied by the Japanese, the allied military authorities decided to build another supply route, which led to the birth of the famous Ledo Road, originating from a place called Ledo in northeastern India, cutting through the mountainous and densely forested Hukong Valley in northern Burma to link up with the existing Burma Road inside China. Since then, Burma was widely recognised as the backdoor to China.
Here it would be interesting to learn the experts’ and analysts’ views on the interconnection of Bangladesh, Myanmar and Yunnan. According to them, these three regions’ interconnection has a long history in both human and environmental terms. The variety and complexity of pathways, corridors, and networks of livelihood-making, commerce, religions, political systems, and ethno-linguistic families have become ever highlighted in colonial encounters, changing political systems, inter-ethnic flows of natural resources and human labour, and academic research. The works of scholars and analysts all attest to the deep entanglement of the three regions and their wider connectivity with the eastern Himalayas, Southwest China, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. The transregionality and bordered connectivity of each of the three regions have simultaneously taken place in the modern era since its advent in the 18th century.
Today, with China rapidly developing, their demand for oil from the Middle East and gas from our offshore gas fields are becoming increasingly high. They had already established a deep seaport at Kyaukpyu and gas and fuel pipelines were already in place. These facilities will aid in the smooth flow of their exports and imports of fuel and other necessary commodities from the Middle East and Western countries. India too has intentions of utilizing Sittway as their seaport of convenience for export and import businesses of her landlocked northeastern provinces. Thus Myanmar is becoming more valuable for those two countries.
If we can exploit the present situations and opportunities open to us, I’m confident that our country could become one of the important maritime hubs in the region as stated in the title of this article. It may seem too ambitious or very wishful thinking, but I have concrete reasons to believe thus.
The deductions which I’m about to make are based on the past and present or prevailing situations. Since the 17th century, the Strait of Malacca has been the main shipping channel between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. The strait provides a thoroughfare for ships plying between the Americas and the Oceania to the east and the Middle East and Europe to the west and plays an important role as the main trading route between the East and West until today. However, with the ever increasing volumes of traffic passing through and the ships getting larger in size, the capacity that the strait can handle is nearing the saturation point. As the ships get bigger in size, their draughts have also increased significantly. Their deeper draughts are becoming restrictions for some large oil tankers and container ships, as there are shallow places along the strait obstructing their passage. This necessitates detours to avoid passing through the strait, which extends their voyages by over a thousand nautical miles. That is costing the shipping industries much more and wasting time. Also, the piracy inside the strait is of great concern to shipping.
For that reason, some large maritime nations to the east, namely China and Japan, are finding alternative means to solve those problems. China wanted to revive the old dream of digging a canal across the Kra Isthmus in Southern Thailand. Japan wants to construct a pipeline to transfer oil brought by their large tankers from the Middle East — to be pumped from the Andaman Sea on the western side, to the empty tankers waiting in the Gulf of Thailand on the eastern side of the Kra Isthmus. These are to avoid passing through the Malacca Strait, which would save them time, money and also safe from the pirates, who terrorize ships passing through that strait.
Of the two ideas mentioned above, I’m of the very strong opinion that the digging of a canal has the least chance of being implemented. My reasoning is: the idea of digging a canal across that isthmus originated in 17th century Siam, about two centuries before the Suez Canal came into being. It was the brainchild of the then King of Siam, who approached a French engineer, who visited there, with his idea. The French engineer convinced him that it wouldn’t be possible, as the engineering technology wasn’t very much advanced in those days. In the 18th century another Siamese prince came up with that idea again, but it never materialised. Then in the 19th century, after the British annexed Burma, the British East India Company planned to implement that project, but later dropped it to avoid undermining Singapore, which they had already developed into a flourishing seaport.
After such long delays in the past since the idea was first conceived, it can be deduced that it has no chance of being implemented now. The reason must be the cons outweigh the pros for constructing such a canal there. Although the residents of that area wanted the canal proposed by China as part of their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to be built, the government of Thailand is reluctant to comply for security reasons. They are wary of the fact that the canal would cut off those restive provinces from the rest of the country and would be difficult to keep control over those cut away provinces and would also further the divide between the local populace.
The maritime nations to the east will try to find other alternatives to bypass the Malacca Strait to transport their exports and imports safely and efficiently. At such a time, we should try to exploit this opportune situation. We should try to upgrade our existing port facilities and construct more modern seaports that would be capable of handling large volumes of cargo flows through our country to their respective country of destination. In doing so, the pending Dawei Deep Seaport Project would be the best candidate for development. Taking into consideration the fact that Japan and India had teamed up to counter the Chinese initiative, the BRI, and are giving priority to the construction of the Asian Highways, serious studies should be made, how we could cash in on that project. As one of them will start from Viet Nam passing through Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar to India and thence up to Turkey and another route will be from Indonesia through Singapore, Malaysia and link up with the first one inside Thailand, the Asian Highway would benefit the Dawei Seaport greatly. The cargoes bound for or out of the Far East and the ASEAN neighbours would be more rapidly transported through that seaport by the overland route that would reach up to Danang Seaport in Viet Nam.
At this juncture, I would like to highlight the importance of the Dawei Deep Seaport. As the large merchant ships will want to avoid passing through the Malacca Strait, and with the impending completion of the Asian Highway, the Dawei Seaport will be an alternative they are looking for. It will get the lion’s share of the cargo bound to and fro between the Far East — Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei — and also some of our ASEAN neighbours and the European and Middle Eastern countries to transit through Dawei Seaport. To my knowledge, Thailand has already constructed many miles of road that would serve as part of the Asian Highways. At present a new motorway is under construction to link Bangkok and the Kanchanaburi Province, which borders with Myanmar and is not far from the Dawei Seaport. As I had recently stayed at one of the construction sites of that motorway, I noticed the importance and priority they placed on the construction of that road, which I presume was intended to be linked to the future Dawei Seaport.
In conclusion, I would like to suggest that we should study the prospects of taking advantage of the prevailing situations discussed above. Based on those findings, we should make plans to implement projects to upgrade our existing seaports and build new modern port facilities to cope with the volume of shipping that would definitely be diverted to us, away from the Malacca Strait, in the near future.
The most immediate action to be taken will be to find ways and means to expedite the implementation of the Dawei Deep Seaport and the Special Economic Zone Project, which would surely be a success. These facilities would create job opportunities for our citizens, generate tariffs, duties, taxes and incomes that would boost our economy and set our country on course for rapid and robust developments.
The plan to install an oil pipeline across the Kra Isthmus will not have much impact on the Dawei Seaport, but if the Kra Canal should become a reality it could have certain extent or effect on it. However, I’m skeptical that it would ever materialise. With the Kyaukpyu Seaport operated by the Chinese certain to be included in the BRI, we stand to benefit from that too. Thus, I’m quite confident our country has great potential to become the maritime hub of Asia.

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