Yangon (2007-2017) / The Geopolitical Play of Foreign Interests in the Greenfield

Myanmar has had little cohesive urban and economic development in close to a century, in part due to various isolationist policies imposed by the authoritative governance in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and sanctions imposed by the international community to pressure the regime. However with each incremental transition into democratization and ambitious aims for rapid urbanization the international community begins to lift their sanctions and look towards Myanmar as a land of high potential and investment.

The lag of Myanmar’s economic and urban politics leaves it as a somewhat special ground with either large potential or extreme vulnerability in wake of its simultaneous transition into democratization and rapid, ambitious urban and economic development. Many foreign investors are looking to Yangon for opportunities. The Yangon 2040 master plan itself reportedly took in various proposal ideas from many interested parties such as the Korea International Cooperation Agency, France’s Agence Française de Développement from France, and the Department for International Development from the UK (Aye, JICA updates 2040 plan for Yangon development 2017). The YCDC have also supposedly reached out to other groups such as numerous embassies, UN-Habitat, the European Commission, and World Monuments Fund to highlight issues beyond architectural and spatial such as in planning, heritage conservation, environmental and socio-cultural concerns (Huynh 2017). The Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) arguably, at the current time, participate as the largest role in Yangon’s development. Even before the transition into demcratization, JICA had assisted in various technical projects.

In its first agenda for Yangon’s large urban development, the JICA are specifically undergoing redevelopment of the existing Yangon Circular Railway (YCR) and further plans for three other main alternatives, namely the Light Rapid Transport (LRT), Metro Rapid Transport (MRT) and Bus Rapid Transport (BRT), of which the Japanese government through JICA has invested US$250 million soft loan (Hammond 2015).

The Yangon Circular Railway as ti exists today (Brook, 2014).
Preliminary target area for Yangon Circular Railway, taken from the Strategic Urban Development Plan of Greater Yangon produced by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) showing the existing railway line to be further developed for better efficiency and connection of surrounding cities beyond Yangon.
Case studies for Greater Yangon 2040 transit development (YCDC and JICA 2014). Plans for transit development are heavily based off of those existing, particularly the Yamanote circle line in Japan that was though built before Yangon’s circular railway line, now travels up to 55 miles per hour due to consistent development (Brook 2014).

Transit development was deemed a priority as a response to the JICA’s capacity analysis in that the population of Myanmar by 2040 would double to around 11 million from 5.1 million (Japan Internation Cooperation Agency (JICA) and Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) 2013) (Hammond 2015), which would potentially worsen traffic.

Urban public transportation system proposed for the TOD plan of Yangon 2040 taken from shown in a table taken from the Strategic Urban development Plan of Greater Yangon showing statistical prediction.

By investing into the transportation infrastructure of Greater Yangon and its surrounding city centres, the JICA, and so Japan, in return gain not only economic return but also become more geopolitical competitive.

‘In a recently-negotiated land-for-speed deal, a Japanese firm will gain the right to develop state-owned real estate along the tracks in exchange for upgrading the train line’ (Brook 2014). Besides obtaining favorable land-use development deals, further speculations predict the circular road would soon be filled with vehicles imported from Japan (Brook 2014).

Myanmar’s geographical location places itself in a strong advantage. Often cited as the place where China meets India, it is also the intersection of Bangladesh, Laos and Thailand, countries that can and already offer powerful trade relations and large potential markets. ‘…by 2025 over half of the world’s consuming class, that is, those with income of more than $10 a day, will live within a five-hour flight of Myanmar (Chho, et al. 2013, with figures for 2010 and sourced from the United Nations and China’s National Bureau of Statistics, except for the population of the Indian provinces, which come from India’s census in 2011). Within Myanmar itself, ‘…China has bestowed its own infrastructure improvements on Myanmar, notably a freight rail link in the north of the country that supplies China with Burmese fossil fuels. (Last month, Myanmar’s government publicly balked at China’s more ambitious plan to build a high-speed passenger rail line through Myanmar and other Southeast Asian countries to link China and Singapore.)’ (Suzuki Masahiko, the JICA senior plannign advisor, as quoted in Brook 2014).


Aye, Myat Nyein. 2016. “JICA to publish amended master plan by year-end.” Myanmar Times. November 24. Accessed December 13, 2017. https://www.mmtimes.com/business/23876-jica-to-publish-amended-master-plan-by-year-end.html.

—. 2017. “JICA updates 2040 plan for Yangon development.” Myanmar Times. January 4. Accessed December 12, 2017. https://www.mmtimes.com/business/24405-jica-updates-2040-plan-for-yangon-development.html.

Bajoria, Jayshree. 2007. “Understanding Myanmar.” washingtonpost.com. October 5. Accessed December 23, 2017. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/10/05/AR2007100500914.html.

Brook, Daniel. 2014. “History of the Present: Yangon.” PLACES. May. https://placesjournal.org/article/history-of-the-present-yangon-myanmar/.

Chho, Heang, Richard Dobb, Doan Nguyen Hanse, Fraser Thompson, Nancy Shah, and Lukas Streiff. 2013. “Myanmar’s moment: Unique opportunities, major challenges.” McKinsey Global Institute. June. Accessed December 23, 2017. https://www.google.com.hk/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=5&ved=0ahUKEwiDs7vG4J_YAhWFGpQKHUcxCzIQFgg9MAQ&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.mckinsey.com%2F~%2Fmedia%2FMcKinsey%2FGlobal%2520Themes%2FAsia%2520Pacific%2FMyanmars%2520moment%2FMGI_Myanmar_Full%2520r.

Gómez-Ibáñez, José A., Derek Bok, and Nguyễn Xuân Thành. 2012. “Yangon’s Development Challenges.” Ash Center. March. Accessed December 13, 2017. https://ash.harvard.edu/links/yangons-development-challenges.

Hammond, Clare. 2015. “JICA proposes underground railway.” Myanmar Times. August 11. Accessed December 23, 2017. https://www.mmtimes.com/business/15910-jica-proposes-underground-railway.html.

Huynh, Diana. 2017. “Imagined Urban Futures of Yangon.” Tea Circle. January 20. Accessed December 13, 2017. https://teacircleoxford.com/2017/01/20/imagined-urban-futures-of-yangon/.

Japan Internation Cooperation Agency (JICA), and Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC). 2013. A Strategic Urban Development Plan, The Project for the Strategic Urban Development Plan of the Greater Yangon. Final Report I, Yangon: Nippon Koei Co., Ltd, NJS Consultants Co., Ltd., YACHIYO Engineering Co., Ltd., International Development Center of Japan Inc., Asia Air Survey Co., Ltd., ALMEC Corporation.

YCDC, Yangon City Development Committee, and Japan International Cooperation Agency JICA. 2014. A Strategic Urban Development Plan of Greater Yangon. Final Report II, Summary, Yangon: Nippon Koei Co., Ltd., NJS Consultants Co., Ltd., YACHIYO Engineering Co., Ltd., International Development Center of Japan Inc., Asia Air Survey Co., Ltd., ALMEC Corporation.

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