China lobbies for pipeline support in Myanmar, but environmental concerns persist
Community groups in coastal Myanmar on Thursday urged the suspension of a Chinese-built deep-sea port and pipelines that will soon deliver oil and gas from the Bay of Bengal to China.
In an open letter, three groups representing 17 villages near the starting points of the pipelines in Rakhine State have called for a review of the US$2.5 billion infrastructure project's environmental impact.
"Beginning from this year, [the] Maday Sea Port will be filled with massive Chinese oil tankers transporting crude oil," the open letter shared on Thursday read.
"If any oil spill occurs from these tankers [...], major sources of our livelihoods including our sea, agricultural lands, rice farms and mangrove forests will be destroyed."
Starting possibly as early this month, up to 22 million tonnes of Middle Eastern oil and 12 billion cubic metres of natural gas from Myanmar's Shwe Gas fields will annually flow through the two pipelines operated by a joint venture between China's largest oil producer China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise.
As the country formerly known as Burma is undergoing political reforms, popular protests have previously stalled major Chinese investment projects.
A Chinese US$3.6 billion dam project in 2011 and expansion of a Chinese-run copper mine earlier this year were suspended after protests and heated debate about their environmental impact.
On April 18, hundreds of people ignored a government ban to protest and marched to CNPC's local offices at the starting point of pipelines in Rakhing State's Kyaukpyu township.
Wearing T-shirts with crossed-out CNPC logos, they called for a suspension of the port and pipeline project and higher compensation for confiscated land.
Ten people were arrested by Myanmar police and are currently awaiting trial for participating in the protest, Wong Aung, founder of the Shwe Gas Movement, a Yangon-based NGO that lobbies against the Chinese project, said.
"The villagers protested because they had not received any compensation. We call for an investigation," he said.
CNPC could not be reached for immediate comment at its Beijing headquarters and at its Yangon branch. The company also did not immediately reply to emailed questions.
"We want to see the contract the Chinese signed with the government," said Dr Aye Maung, chairman of the locally powerful opposition party Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP). "We have asked the Chinese to publish it."
The member of parliament for Rakhine's capital Sittwe is a controversial in his own right for his non-conciliatory approach towards the state's muslim Rohingya population, denying them citizenship and calling for their expulsion from the country.
Two days after the protest against CNPC in Kyaukpyu, 10 leading opposition figures travelled to China and the RNDP's Aye Maung was among them.
"This is the first time for us," Aye Maung said. "We were guests of the Chinese Communist Party."
Aye Maung said that during the nine day-long trip to Beijing, Kunming and Qingdao Chinese officials have asked him and other opposition parties to mediate in the conflict between locals and the pipeline operator.
"We need to discuss how local people can have employment opportunities," he said. "We told [the Chinese] we want a railroad that links Kyaukpyu to Kunming and we want a special economic zone in Kyaukpyu. They said they had such plans."
Seven hundred kilometres to the east of his constituency, near to where the pipelines enter China in Shan State, community groups have reported similar concerns.
Many villagers had only received a third or half of the compensation for their lands used for the pipelines, Lway Hlar Reang of the Ta'ang Student and Youth Organisation, a community group for the Palaung ethnic minority in Shan State, said, adding that the pipeline had also brought fear to adjacent communities.
"Local people were afraid to go to into the fields - especially women," she said, because of the increased presence of Myanmese soldiers guarding the construction project. The region is still largely controlled by ethnic milita groups that could easily sabotage the flow of oil and gas.
Over the last two years, her organisation has reported four instances in which the pipelines had leaked.
In April, the Northern Shan State Farmers Association said shoddy construction of the gas pipeline had raised safety concerns for nearby farmers.
In each case, CNPC has rejected the allegations.
"Any foreign enterprise undertakes an investment in any country to pursue profit," Xiong Guofen, a Chinese diplomat in Yangon, wrote in an e-mail, adding that there had been no case of involunary confiscation of land or unsatisfactory compensation.
Salaries paid by the CNPC subsidiary were above the local average and the company made an effort to employ the local population, he wrote.
Even though locals should not expect a foreign investor to take on the role of the Myanmar government to provide basic services, CNPC had invested heavily in the development of local communities, he wrote.
"Since the commencement of the project in 2010, CNPC has spent more than US$14 million on education, healthcare and social development along the pipeline," he wrote.
For Sean Turnell, an economist at Macquarie University in Sydney and long-time Myanmar watcher, China hosting the opposition politicians and its donations were "a late charm offensive".
"Blinded perhaps by their own politics, I think they saw the old regime continuing in Burma indefinitely."