Friday, July 24, 2015

Myanmar locals push back against Chinese megaprojects

China's plans for economic link to Bay of Bengal draw ire from fishermen, farmers in Rakhine state
<p>Fishermen on Maday Island say there are not as many fish in nearby waters after the construction of a large oil terminal (Photo by Will Baxter)</p> Fishermen on Maday Island say there are not as many fish in nearby waters after the construction of a large oil terminal (Photo by Will Baxter)
  • Simon Lewis & John Zaw, Maday Island
  • Myanmar
  • April 21, 2015
For generations, Maday islanders here have followed the moon.

“We put the nets out on the 13th day of the Buddhist [lunar] calendar. That’s when the full moon is coming, the tide gets higher,” said Than Zaw Moe, 28, one of a group of fishermen gathered by a hut at a muddy shore in western Myanmar.

Just beyond the hut — on the floor of which lie two recently deceased sharks — is a massive deep-water port, with yellow piping at the ready to suck crude oil from hulking ships.

The state-run firm China National Petroleum Corporation, in collaboration with the Myanmar government, has constructed a transshipment terminal here that will be able to send 22 million tons of crude each year through an underground pipeline all the way to the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming. The terminal is part of a series of developments in Rakhine state’s Kyaukphyu township that China hopes will transform this backwater into a strategic economic link with the Bay of Bengal.

But these ambitious plans are not without their malcontents.

Than Zaw Moe points to an orange buoy, bobbing on the surface of the water. It marks an area where rocks have been dropped on the seabed, which will catch and tear the fishermen’s nets if they attempt to fish there.

“We’ve had to move our fishing to other areas where there are not as many fish,” he told “In the past, we might get 10 fish in a net,” he adds, by way of an example, “but now we find only five.”

“We have no idea how much they spent on this project,” Than Zaw Moe says, “but I can see they take a lot of resources from here, and what they’ve provided for the people is only a little.”

Advocates of the developments in Kyaukphyu say that tens of thousands of jobs will be created, but the fisherman’s tale is emblematic of skepticism among many local people, who say the projects have damaged ancient ways of life and brought little benefit.

The area was selected during high-level meetings between the Chinese government and members of Myanmar’s former military junta in 2009, when the first in a series of memoranda were signed. A natural gas pipeline running from offshore fields, through Kyaukphyu and on to China, opened in July 2013, and pumped 1.87 billion cubic meters of gas in its first year of operation.

The parallel oil pipeline is finished, and test operations began in January.
Still to come is a special economic zone that will include a deep-sea port, industrial zone and residential areas. A local industry is also likely to emerge servicing international firms about to begin exploring offshore areas for yet more oil and gas.

Tanks at the Maday Island Oil Terminal are situated on the coast (Photo by Will Baxter)

The first the Maday islanders knew of the plans was when Chinese workers arrived with heavy machinery in 2009 and started dramatically reshaping the island — stripping away hills, dynamiting the seabed and constructing a vast complex that now includes 12 massive oil drums, a residential block and sports facilities for workers.

“The villagers didn’t know about the project in advance. They only knew when the company came to the island with their machines,” said local activist Tun Kyi, chairman of the Maday Island Development Association.

At the time, Myanmar was ruled by a military junta with a reputation for not brooking opposition of any kind. “It was 2009, so we couldn’t say anything because of the military,” Tun Kyi said. “They threatened us that we would be jailed if we opposed.”

Farmers were compensated if they had documents proving they owned confiscated land, but Tun Kyi said many people did not have the paperwork to support their claims to ancestral land. Attempts by officials to register land in their own names to claim compensation were rife, he added.

“They say they have paid compensation for the land, but they haven’t paid for everything they took,” said Tun Kyi.

China National Petroleum Corporation did not respond to a request for comment, but a section on its website says that, “The pipeline project team handled land acquisition issues based on the principle of ‘voluntary decision’ and ‘minimal impact on farmland’, and paid compensation for the converted land in a fair, transparent and legal manner.” The site also sets out the company’s efforts to compensate locals, build hospitals and school, and provide jobs and training.

Locals say, however, that their experience belies the company's claims. In April 2013, after months of unsuccessful attempts to communicate their concerns with the government and the Chinese company, about 700 Maday residents staged a protest, marching from the island’s monastery to the Chinese company’s construction site.

Ten people, including Tun Kyi, were later charged with holding the protest without permission — despite attempts to secure approval from authorities — and sentenced to three months in jail.

The pipeline at Maday Island Oil Terminal (Photo by Will Baxter)

Elsewhere in Kyaukphyu, similar complaints have been leveled against the gas pipeline project and the initial work on the economic zone. Amongst the rice paddies and rolling hills of Ramree Island, work is underway on the infrastructure for the special economic zone.
Standing in the lee of the construction site for a power transformer, U Phyu Nu Aung, 51, extends his hand to indicate what is now a patch of dry dirt.

“I used to grow mangoes here,” he said. “My grandfather had this land.”

After the Myanmar military forcibly cleared his land in 2009, Phyu Nu Aung received compensation amounting to less than US$150 for his trees. But without an official title, he received no compensation for the land itself.

Phyu Nu Aung is also one of hundreds of farmers whose rice paddies have been inundated with soil displaced for the Chinese-led gas pipeline project.

“Now only a small part of my land is not covered in soil, so that’s all I can farm,” he said, expressing frustration about the lack of avenues for complaints, and the lack of upsides for local people.

“Whenever they plan a project like this, they say there will be jobs for the local villagers. But these companies have their own workers, so there is no benefit for the local people.”

U Phyu Nu Aung, 51, walks on land where he used to grow mangoes before the site was taken by the government (Photo by Will Baxter)

The failure of employment opportunities to materialize is one of the most common complaints among Kyaukphyu locals, according to Tun Tun Naing, an activist with the Kyaukphyu Social Network Group, a local community-based organization. Therefore, he said, “locals don’t have trust in this type of project”.

In previous projects, he said, companies had largely brought their own workforce with them, or brought in workers from other parts of Myanmar. Ethnic Rakhine workers are only employed for low-paid construction jobs or as cleaners, he said.

The broader economic situation in Kyaukphyu is yet to change. Local people are largely poor farmers, have little education or training, and have access to only poor-quality public services.

“Rakhine state has the second biggest gas revenues [in Myanmar], but it’s the second poorest state,” Tun Tun Naing added.

As Myanmar moves toward securing peace with its ethnic minorities, and possibly a federal system, the Rakhine, who make up the majority in Rakhine state, are demanding a share of resource revenues — which currently go straight to the central government in Naypyidaw.
“We want fifty percent of resources from gas revenues,” said Phoe San, the Arakan National Party’s (ANP) secretary for Kyaukphyu township, adding that this demand had received widespread support during an unprecedented meeting of Rakhine politicians, civil society and religious leaders in the town last year. “We haven't campaigned on this yet, but we will demand it in parliament.”

At present, the ANP holds a majority in the state legislature, and the party is expected to make significant gains in national elections slated for late this year. That could put the ANP in a stronger position to make demands for resource sharing, although activists say Myanmar’s military-drafted constitution must be amended to really achieve this.

Boys from a small fishing community play on the muddy coastline of Maday Island (Photo by Will Baxter)

Back on Maday Island, Fisherman U Hla Swe, 54, reflected on the benefits of the Chinese megaproject in his backyard. In the past few months, he said, running water and electricity have arrived in his village for the first time, and there is a new road.

However, for a community that relies so heavily on the sea, the damage to fisheries is hard to take. Donated fishing nets have done little to assuage such concerns, and locals do not rule out staging more protests.

“Yes, they provided some nets, but not enough for everyone in the village. But these nets, the holes are like this,” Hla Swe recalled, forming a large diamond with thumbs and forefingers. “They’re too big for the kind of fishing we do here.

“We are really not happy, but we have to accept it. What can we do?”

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