BURMA: China’s Oil, Gas Pipelines Recipe for Abuse, Warn Activists

By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Dec 31 (IPS) – China’s growing dependence on military-ruled Burma to meet its energy demands is poised to take concrete form when, according to activists, work commences in the coming months on the construction of oil and gas pipelines.

The 980-kilometre journey of the pipelines across Burma will begin in the country’s Arakan state, on its western coast, and snake across flat and mountainous terrain to the eastern Shan state, which borders China. The pipelines will then continue to Kunming and Nanning, two major cities in southern China.

In early November, officials from both countries held a formal opening ceremony in the Arakan state to signal that the massive construction project for gas would get underway soon. In mid-December, Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping used a visit to the South-east Asian country to push ahead with the plans for the oil pipeline.

Yet as the junta in Burma, also known as Myanmar, prepares the initial groundwork to build the twin pipelines that will cut across the country, a drumbeat of concern about rights violations that will follow is gathering momentum.

The alarm sounded by human rights activists and environmentalists comes in the wake of a growing military presence and harsh policies imposed on some villages along the pipelines’ route.

While there are still no confirmed reports of forced labour along the route, such a form of abuse is inevitable once construction of the pipelines begins, they add.

“Fishing communities in the Arakan state close to the off-shore gas project have been told they cannot fish near the pipeline’s route,” says Naing Htoo, Burma project coordinator for EarthRights International (ERI), a Washington D.C.-based rights lobby. “Land confiscation has begun in Arakan state along the pipeline route.” “These are always the first sign of abuse,” Naing Htoo reveals in a telephone interview from Thailand’s northern city of Chiang Mai. “Most people along the pipeline route are not aware of the construction plans. This is a denial of their right to information.”

Other concerned groups, like the Shwe Gas Movement (SGM), are reporting that close to 44 infantry and light infantry battalions from Burma’s powerful military have already been stationed along the route to secure it for the China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC), China’s dominant oil and gas firm, which is building both pipelines.

“Each battalion is thought to have 250-300 soldiers, which means that at this time there are up to 13,200 soldiers positioned along the route,” states a recent report released by SGM, a network of Burmese environmentalists and human rights activists exiled in Thailand. “The military presence in Arakan state has forced many to live in constant fear of arrest or to flee.”

The two pipelines to be built in Burma have already been billed as the largest of their kind in South-east Asia. They will carry the natural gas to be tapped from Burma’s offshore reserves in the Andaman Sea and the oil to be shipped from the Middle East to feed China’s growing energy demands.

The concerns being expressed even before actual construction of the cross- country pipelines gets underway are not misplaced in light of what unfolded during the construction and the operation of the Yadana pipeline in south- western Burma.

The much smaller Yadana pipeline, some 60 km long, was built in the 1990s to supply Thailand with a flow of offshore natural gas from Burma. But it became a symbol of gross human rights violations, beginning from the pre- construction period, during the building phase and even when the pipeline began supplying gas in 2000.

A steady stream of reports from ERI, starting in 1996, exposed the scale of violations, which ranged from killing, rape, torture and forced labour of the ethnic Karen and Mon communities along the pipeline’s route to land confiscation and restriction of movements. An increased presence of Burmese military – “to provide security for the pipeline” – was a major factor behind the abuse, the rights group has declared.

“Forced labour is unavoidable. The new pipeline projects will give rise to it. That is how the Burmese military gets work done,” says Wong Aung, spokesman for the SWG. “But it will be worse than Yadana, because this project is 15 times longer than that.”

“An area over 20 kilometers on either side of the Yadana pipeline was secured by the military for a ‘security corridor’,” Wong Aung tells IPS. “We expect a repeat this time by the way they have placed battalions along the route and started confiscating land.”

Yet instead of the Karen and Mon ethnic minorities, who were victims of the Yadana pipeline, the twin Chinese ventures will affect the Arakan and Shan ethnic minorities and people from the majority Burman community living in the centre of the country, adds Wong Aung. “The CNPC wants both pipelines built in three years, and 22 townships will be affected during this period.”

The concerns about a spread of forced labour along the planned pipelines comes at a time when the Burmese junta has been reprimanded for failing to abolish this scourge over the past decade. The regime was criticised for this failure in November in a resolution adopted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) during its annual sessions in Geneva.

Among the regime’s failings are the limits it has placed to prevent the ILO distribute reader-friendly information in local languages aimed to educate people about the organisation’s complaints mechanism that has been created to offer relief to victims of forced labour.

“It is very important that all communities along the pipelines route are aware of their rights,” Steve Marshall, the ILO’s representative in Burma, tells IPS. “The pipeline will be a test of the government’s compliance of the complaint mechanism.”


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