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In 1934, when the British built the Ava Bridge, spanning the Irrawaddy River between Sagaing and Ava (or Inwa) close to Mandalay, the poet Nandawshay Hsaya Tin composed a lament for the sampan rowers who’d be put out of work.
“Sampan rowers fall asleep now the bridge is finished / Burmese are out of a job / Crying / looking at the bridge,” the song went.
Bridges over major rivers can transform local, as well as national, economies. But not everyone is in favour of building a $168 million bridge linking the congested downtown of Yangon, Burma’s commercial capital, with the poor and largely rural township of Dala south of the Yangon River.
Dala locals, many of whom have to commute to the city on ferries or disaster-prone long-tail boats, have expressed support for the bridge, and their representatives in Parliament have been lobbying for it hard. Even boat captains whose livelihoods are seemingly threatened have acknowledged the benefits it would bring.
The bridge would provide safer and more convenient passage to an estimated 1.5 million people who live in Yangon’s Southern District, where Dala is located. Pipes included in the bridge’s design would also alleviate water scarcity during the March-May hot season. Without a bridge, the river cuts off the district from the city’s growing prosperity.
The main source of opposition comes from the operators of privately operated ports strung along the riverbank, and their allies in the Myanma Port Authority, who worry that, unless high and long enough, the bridge could restrict the passage of large container ships. Together, these ports account for more than 90 percent of Burma’s sea trade.
Meanwhile, discrepancies in the designs held by different government departments have slowed compromise. However, the project seems to be gathering steam, with the construction ministry announcing late last month that construction would begin by the end of the year under a revised design.
But is everyone truly on board?
A clash of measurements
According to an agreement reached in 2012, South Korea’s Economic Development Cooperation Fund will back the bridge, connecting Phone Gyi Street in downtown Yangon and Bo Min Yaung Street in Dala, with a $138 million loan from the Export-Import Bank of Korea. The government said it would contribute $30 million.
However, the Myanma Port Authority, under the Ministry of Transport and Communication, vetoed the design, saying the bridge’s proposed height and width would bar large ships.
The Port Authority requested the proposed height be extended to 60 metres, or that an underground tunnel be considered instead. The Ministry of Construction countered that the riverbed is too soft for a tunnel and the cost would anyway be too high.
A compromise solution was announced in August 2013. However, the reports published by the construction ministry and the Port Authority, both seen by Myanmar Now, put the proposed length of the bridge at 300 and 350 metres respectively. Both proposed the same height, 54 metres.
The construction ministry later issued a plan with the length at 251 metres (equivalent to two and a half football pitches), aided by piers jutting into the water, and the height at 49 metres. The Port Authority requested an increase in length by at least 50 metres and in height by five metres. Otherwise, they said, the county’s economy would suffer.
“We are not against the construction of the bridge. We are only giving advice because we don’t want to go down badly in history,” Ni Aung, managing director of the Port Authority, told a press conference in Yangon on June 12.
But the Ministry of Construction put its foot down, saying their design had already been approved by Parliament.
Kyaw Kaung Cho, chief engineer at the Department of Bridges in the Ministry of Construction, said a length of 251 metres would leave plenty of room even for 15,000-tonne vessels measuring 167 metres.
“We didn’t calculate these measurements ourselves. They replicate standards in Korea and Japan,” said Kyaw Kaung Cho. He explained that larger vessels would dock at Thilawa Port, downstream from Yangon and close to a special economic zone.
A political ploy?
Representatives for Dala Township in the Yangon Region legislature say the Port Authority is merely shielding the interests of private port operators through its objections.
“The Ministry of Transport and Communications doesn’t know what’s really going on because they only listen to a group of crony businessmen,” said Htun Yin of Dala constituency No. 1.
Major ports upriver from the proposed bridge include Myanmar Industrial Port, Asia World Port, and Myanmar Economic Corporation Port.
However, Asia World told Myanmar Now in an email that they did not oppose the Dala bridge project.
But Myanmar Industrial Port has objected strongly, according to regional parliamentarians.
The port, established in 2003, is owned by Myanmar Annawa Swan-er-shin Group (S) Co. Ltd. The previous government of President Thein Sein granted it a 30-year lease in 2012 for 17 acres owned by the Port Authority.
It has been in the spotlight since May when port authorities in Malaysia discovered 1.2 tonnes of crystal methamphetamine, worth an estimated $18 million, that had been shipped from the port in Yangon.
Myanmar Now tried to contact Myanmar Industrial Port more than 15 times, via email and telephone, to enquire both about their objections to the bridge and about their failure to prevent a giant shipment of illicit drugs, but received no reply.
According to a report issued by the Ministry of Construction in August last year, the port oversees 40 percent of Burma’s sea trade and is situated close to the proposed bridge, whose structure would seemingly block ships’ access to the port’s piers.
Regional parliamentarians said the port operators sent more than five letters last year, addressed to the Yangon Region and Union governments, requesting design changes.
More recently, the port managed to get the ear of President Win Myint, who assumed office in March, and of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. Regional parliamentarians said the state counsellor asked Yangon Region Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein to resolve the dispute speedily.
Htun Yin called the objections a “political ploy,” saying the port operators’ aim was to stop the bridge being built within the term of the current government, which will end in early 2021.
Regional parliamentarians said that the ports, which had gained a number of privileges under the previous Thein Sein government, had not objected to the bridge plan until the Suu Kyi-led government assumed office in 2016.
“The dispute arose when the current government tried to fulfil a promise made by the previous government,” said Htwe Tin, who represents the other Dala constituency in the Yangon Region parliament.
The Port Authority, however, said they were only concerned about the “safe passage of ships.”
“We are only discussing the possible consequences. We have no reason to protect them,” Port Authority spokesperson Myo Nyein Aye told Myanmar Now in reference to private port operators.
A breakthrough seemed apparent when, on June 25, the Ministry of Construction announced in state media that a new design for the bridge would be drawn up and construction would start by the end of the year.
Kyaw Kaung Cho of the Department of Bridges told Myanmar Now the length would be widened to allow for a 301-metre waterway, up from 251 metres.
He said the Ministry of Transport and Communications had accepted the new design, which had been submitted to the president, with approval expected imminently.
However, Port Authority spokesperson Myo Nyein Aye told Myanmar Now on June 27 that they had not been informed of the changes.
The Ministry of Construction says the new design requires a higher budget, to be announced soon, after discussions with the Ministry of Finance and Planning and the Export-Import Bank of Korea.
Region parliamentarian Htun Yin said an extra $19 million would be needed, though this has not been confirmed.
The earlier plan envisaged an early 2018 start date and completion by March 2021. The delay in settling on a plan will push completion back considerably.
Locals in Yangon’s Southern District told Myanmar Now they supported building the bridge, citing the danger of current daily river crossings.
Four people died when a long-tail boat capsized on June 13. Deaths on the river are far from rare.
“Many people have died in front of our eyes [while crossing]. It happens at least three or four times a year. People come to think of it as normal,” said Thein Han, administrator of Kamar Kasit Ward in Dala Township.
Those operating ferries and long-tail boats, whose livelihoods would be threatened, took a surprisingly similar view.
Htun Myint, who has been running a long-tail boat for 20 years, acknowledges that his income might decrease but said he hopes the bridge will be finished soon because it is dangerous to travel on the river.
Maung Maung Myint, secretary of the Kamar Kathwe ferry cooperative, told Myanmar Now, “Since we were young, hundreds of people have drowned in the river. The bridge would benefit thousands of people and we support it.”
This story was originally published by Myanmar Now.