Thursday, October 6, 2011

Pipelines to China Become New Target For Burmese Activists

Construction taking place on the China-Burma pipeline from Burma's western coast to Yunnan Province, China. (Photo: Xinhua) 
Chinese-backed strategic oil and natural gas pipelines under construction in Burma have become the new target for Burmese activists following President Thein Sein’s suspension last week—under heavy public pressure—of the controversial Chinese-backed Myitsone Dam hydropower project in Kachin State.
Citing human rights violations, activists on Thursday called for the similar suspension of the US $ 2.5 billion oil and natural gas pipelines being constructed by state-owned China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC). The pipelines are to start at the Bay of Bengal in Arakan State on Burma's western coast, travel through central and northeastern Burma, and end in Yunnan Province, China.
“Widespread land confiscation to make way for the pipeline corridor has already left countless people landless and jobless, while others along the pipeline are facing human rights violations and exploitation,” said a group of Burmese activists from the Shwe Gas Movement, a campaign group opposing the exploitation of Burma’s natural gas reserves, in a statement on Thursday.
Map showing the route to be followed by the China-Burma oil and gas pipelines. (Photo: Shwe Gas Movement)
The oil pipeline, which CNPC was granted exclusive rights to build and operate, is even more economically and strategically important to China than the $ 3.6 billion Myitsone Dam, which was expected to generate 6,000-megawatts of electricity that would be sent mostly to China. The pipeline, with an estimated capacity of 20 million tons of crude oil per year that will enjoy tax concessions and customs clearance rights from the Burmese government, will enable China to bypass the Strait of Malacca when importing crude oil from the Middle East and Africa, saving an estimated 1,200 km shipping distance.
As part of the oil pipeline project, China is also constructing a deep-water crude oil unloading port and oil storage facilities on Burma’s Maday Island off the coast of Arakan State—an investment that will provide China with crucial access to the geopolitically strategic Indian Ocean, where the US is poised to increase its navy presence in the coming decade.
The gas pipeline, scheduled to be completed in 2013, will be used to transport Burmese natural gas from the Shwe Natural Gas Fields located off the Arakan coast to Yunnan Province.
The pipeline projects have angered the people and politicians in Arakan State, which is rich with Burma’s largest oil and natural gas reserves but has a poor electricity supply.
On Sept 27, Ba Shin, an opposition MP representing Kyaukphyu Island off the Arakan coast, submitted a question to the national Parliament in Naypyidaw, asking whether his constituency would receive a share of the natural gas extracted from the Shwe Natural Gas Fields for the purpose of improving the island’s electricity supply.
In response, Energy Minister Than Htay reminded Ba Shin that the previous military government awarded China the right to purchase and export the natural gas generated by the Shwe Natural Gas Fields for the next 30 years, and therefore the gas was unavailable for local use.
“People opposed the Myitsone Dam because they don't want their natural resources being used to line the pockets of the regime and corporations with atrocious reputations, all at the expense of local people. The Shwe Gas Project must be stopped, recognizing that like the dam, it will be destructive socially and economically,” said Wong Aung, an Arakan activist with the Shwe Gas Movement.
On Monday, China's Xinhua news agency reported that construction of the pipeline was "proceeding smoothly" and that CNPC said it gave $1.3 million to Burma this week to help build eight schools in the country, as part of an agreement signed in April to provide $6 million of aid.
"Construction of the fourth stage of the oil and gas pipeline [within Burma] commenced on October 1, which is being built by CNPC Chuanqing Drilling Engineering Co. The pipeline project will continue after the rainy season in Myanmar [Burma]," Xinhua said.
Any major obstacle to pipeline construction, such as the broad-based public movement which prompted the Burmese president to suspend the Myitsone Dam project, could be a devastating blow to China-Burma relations.
Napyidaw's decision to suspend construction of the Myitsone Dam has already angered Beijing, which has called for the protection of the legal rights of the Chinese companies that have invested in the project.

In addition, the lead Chinese investor in the dam project warned the Burmese government of possible legal action.
Jim Della-Giacoma, the South East Asia project director for the International Crisis Group, said that the Myitsone Dam crisis has the potential to weaken the Sino-Burma relationship, particularly if it comes to be seen as some sort of strategic rebalancing of Burma's international relations.
“The relationship is deeper and wider than just one dam, but this is clearly a significant decision that probably involves environmental, political and other factors,” he said in an interview with The Irrawaddy.
But since Naypyidaw's decision is apparently part of a more calculated effort by Thein Sein to win support from the Burmese public for his reform agenda and improve Burma's standing in the West while still retaining close ties with China, the new president is expected to appease China by offering economic concessions and ensuring the successful continued construction of the pipelines.
However, even if the same type of public resistance that formed in the case of the Myitsone Dam project does not materialize, the oil and natural gas pipelines will still pass through conflict zones in northeastern parts of Burma, where Shan and Kachin rebels are operating. Military clashes between government troops and those ethnic armed groups have been ongoing since June and have escalated over the past few weeks.

Meanwhile, according to unconfirmed reports, Burma’s Vice-President Tin Aung Myint Oo will visit China in the next few days, leading a delegation of government ministers, including the minister of the Ministry of Electric Power No. 1, possibly in an effort to patch-up the relationship strained by Myistone Dam suspension.
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