By Marwaan Macan-Markar
BANGKOK, Sep 8 (IPS) – If military-ruled Burma needed a stark symbol of China’s growing dominance in the country, then it would be poised to get one soon. The Asian giant is about to start building two pipelines – for gas and oil – that will span the breadth of the South-east Asian nation.
Little wonder why the nearly 1,000-kilometre route of the two pipelines – which will begin on Burma’s western coast, facing the Andaman Sea, and then head into China’s Yunnan province, that borders north-eastern Burma – is already being described in ways that convey an unequal relationship between the two countries.
“It is being called a ‘Colonial Pipeline’. This is what the people inside Burma are saying about this project,” said Aung Zaw, editor of ‘The Irrawaddy’, a current affairs magazine and website published by Burmese journalists living in exile in Thailand. “The pipeline symbolises the relationship between the two countries.”
“People in Burma believe that the Chinese influence in the economy, in politics, and on the environment is growing,” Aung Zaw told IPS. “But I think both governments need each other. For Burma it is Chinese protection and investment; for China it is Burmese resources to be exploited.”
Burma, which is also known as Myanmar, has seen its relationship with China improve over the past two decades. It follows the 1989 collapse of the Communist Party of Burma, which had been backed by Beijing and had been a thorn in the side of the Burmese military since it captured power in a1962 coup.
Beijing’s investments in Burma, such as the planned pipelines, have been most prominent in the strong ties between the two countries. China was a major factor behind the spike in Burma’s foreign investment during the 2007-2008 period, estimated at over 980 million U.S. dollars, according to Burma’s ministry of national planning and development.
The bulk of China’s investments has focused on tapping Burma’s oil and gas reserves, in addition to investing in hydroelectricity projects. Burma is reported to have the 10th largest natural gas reserves in the world. Yet the planned Chinese pipelines could come to symbolise something more – human rights violations and other abuses – if the Chinese went ahead with their plans, warned the Shwe Gas Movement (SGM), a prominent environment and human rights group.
“Past experience has shown that pipeline construction and maintenance in Burma involves forced labour, forced relocation, land confiscation and a host of abuses by soldiers deployed to the project area,” argued SGM in a report released this week. “Companies involved in the Shwe Gas Project and the Trans-Burma Corridor will be complicit in any abuse associated with these projects.”
What is more, neither the Chinese company involved in this project nor Burmese authorities backing it have conducted environmental impact assessments (EIAs) or social impact assessments (SIAs), said Wong Aung, author of the report, ‘Corridor of Power – China’s Trans-Burma Oil and Gas Pipelines’. “They have not done EIAs or SIAs in public. No local people are aware of them nor have they participated in them.”
“There are a lot of environmental and social concerns that have not been addressed,” Wong Aung said in a telephone interview. “Yet the China National Petroleum Corporation has plans to start building the pipelines across Burma this month.”
Similar worries are expressed by activists from the Shan ethnic community, Burma’s largest minority, which has faced long years of brutality at the hands of the Burmese military. The Shan State, along the Burma-China border, will see the pipelines cut through it along a route that locals are still not aware of.
“This will be another attempt by the Burmese army to control an ethnic group and their land,” said Charm Tong, a founding member of Shan Women’s Action Network, a human rights group that has documented rapes of hundreds of Shan women and girls by Burmese soldiers. “Apart from the environmental impact, we are concerned about the human rights violations. Many will be displaced.”
“And like before, the victims have no mechanism to address their concerns when the abuse begins,” Charm Tong revealed in an interview. “This is not new in Burma; there was the Yadana pipeline.”
The Yadana pipeline was built to tap the natural gas in the Andaman Sea and supply it through a pipeline that cut across southern Burma to neighbouring Thailand. That project, which got underway in the early 1990s, was exposed for a dismal list of human rights violations, such as forced labour, land confiscation, forced relocation, rape, torture and murder.
The perpetrators were the pipeline security forces hired by the companies involved in this Burma’s first gas pipeline, including the French energy giant Total and the U.S.-owned Unocal, which was subsequently bought by Chevron. The victims were predominantly from Burma’s Karen ethnic community.
The human rights violations linked to the Yadana gas pipeline added to Burma’s already notorious record of abuse. But it did little to change a regime that saw its foreign exchange coffers expand, earning an estimated 3.5 billion U.S. dollars in 2008 for the export of its gas, primarily to Thailand.
According to the SGM report, Burma’s regime could rake in close to 30 billion U.S. dollars over the next 30 years for the sale of natural gas to China once the new pipeline is built. The gas to be extracted for this route is close to the shores of Burma’s north-western coast.
The oil pipeline, however, will be moving fuel that will be first shipped from the Middle East to a soon-to-be-built deep sea port along Burma’s western coast, consequently saving the time and distance of the routes these oil tankers take through the busy Malacca Straits. China imports over 80 percent of its oil from the Middle East and Africa, according to reports.
Both pipelines will cut through Burma’s Arakan sate and ascend up the thickly forested Arakan Yoma mountain range – which rises to 5,000 feet above sea level at its highest. From there, they will pass through large swathes of the Magway and Mandalay Divisions, in central Burma, before snaking through the Shan State to Kunming, the capital of China’s southern province of Yunnan.
“The pipelines will pass through 22 townships along the route,” said Wong Aung. “There will be 44 military battalions, or about 13,200 soldiers, assigned to guard the pipelines.”