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Burmese Pipeline to China Under Construction, Despite Criticism

Burmese residents in Malaysia hold banners and shouts slogan while protesting the Shwe Gas Project outside the South Korea embassy in Kuala Lumpur, April. 18, 2006. (file photo)
Burmese residents in Malaysia hold banners and shouts slogan while protesting the Shwe Gas Project outside the South Korea embassy in Kuala Lumpur, April. 18, 2006. (file photo)

A group of exiled Burmese environmentalists is warning the construction of a gas and oil pipeline from Burma's Arakan State to China could displace up to 30,000 people and deprive scores of local communities of badly needed development funds.

The $1.5-billion project, backed by China, faces criticism for a lack of accountability to the communities in its path.

The environmentalists say since construction on Burma's Shwe Gas pipeline began in June, there have been reports of human rights abuses and the displacement of thousands of people.

The combined 3,900 kilometer pipeline is being overseen by China’s National Petroleum Corporation along with South Korean and Indian investors. When it becomes fully operational by 2013, it is expected to be the largest foreign-exchange asset for Burma’s government, with annual earnings estimated at $1 billion a year over three decades.

But activists complain the development is being carried out without much regard for local communities. Shwe Gas Movement spokesman Wong Aung says the impact reaches across Burma.

“Displacement and forced relocation at least 8,000 directly. We can imagine that there are more than 21,000 along the [pipeline’s] route. So we believe there are thousands of other people will be displaced directly affected by this project,” says Wong.

The Shwe Gas Movement, made of up Burmese exiles in Thailand, India and Bangladesh, say local communities are likely to see little in development spending from the billions of dollars in revenue.

A Palaung Women's Organization spokeswoman, Lway Aye Nang, says corruption by local Burmese authorities has also hit local landholders forced to sell their land.

“The local authority will be the one to find the land here," she says. "So the Chinese company, some may also give some compensation to the villager. But that money does not go to the villager, the local authority actually grabs that, they take the money. So the villagers lose their land and lose their livelihood and its causing more people in the area to migrate.”

Twelve-million cubic meters of Burmese natural gas will be transported along a 2,800 kilometer pipeline to China’s Yunnan province. Another 1,100 kilometer part of the pipeline will carry 22-million tons of oil from tankers hauling crude from the Middle East and Africa docked in Burma’s ports.

China signed an exclusive agreement for the pipeline in 2009.

At the time, Chinese media reported the Burmese government would ensure the pipeline’s safety. Lway Aye Nang says Burma has deployed more than 6,000 troops to increase security and prevent protests by local communities.

The pipeline is considered important for China’s growing energy needs, by importing more of Burma’s natural gas, and opening an overland shortcut for oil from the Middle East and Africa to the China’s southwest.

Ian Storey, a fellow at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, says China, by focusing on its economic needs, is overlooking the rights abuses by Burma’s military.

“I have seen the allegations of human rights abuses in connection with the pipeline and indeed other Chinese investment projects in Burma; especially the dams the Chinese companies are building," Storey says. "The Burmese government clearly does not care for the human rights of its citizens, and I suppose China is willing to turn a blind eye to those abuses because of the economic pay off that it gets.”

China’s government largely follows an official policy of noninterference in foreign countries’ domestic affairs and argues each country should be allowed to follow its own timetable on improving human rights.

Western sanctions against Burma for the government’s human-rights abuses have largely shut-out Western companies from doing business there. But companies from China, Thailand and other neighboring countries continue to operate.