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Chinese Development Projects in Burma Draw Local Protests

Chinese Development Projects in Burma Draw Local Protests
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Earlier this month in western Burma, hundreds of villagers, activists, and workers protested against a China-backed pipeline project. Similar protests have erupted at Chinese-backed energy and construction projects across Burma, forcing Beijing to re-think its development strategy in the country.

The protest in western Rakhine state was the largest and most organized public opposition to the Burma-China pipeline project. Activists were twice denied a permit to assemble, but demonstrated anyway. Several were arrested.

Activist Wong Aung says there is too much at stake to remain silent.

"Such as, you know, the fishing ground. We are being restricted," he said. "Locals are not getting any quick compensation or kept [from] losing their livelihood. And … the local people did not get any job opportunity and most of the people are being exploited when they are going to work in the Chinese company."

Although an Indian and Korean company are also involved, the twin oil and gas pipelines are mainly backed by China.

When finished around May, they will carry much needed fuel for China's growing energy needs.

Activist Ko Tun Lwin spoke to VOA last year when grievances over the China pipeline were building. He says the problem is that residents are kept in the dark [not told what is going on] as construction moves forward.

"There is not transparency at all although project constructions have already began on our land," he said. "Farm lands were confiscated. Forest and mountains were destroyed because of the project construction."

The story is similar at other China-backed projects, like this copper mine protest that turned violent last November.

The $3.6 billion Myitsone hydropower dam is another controversial project that the government suspended in 2011 amid concerns over its environmental impact.

Analysts like Ralph Cossa say authorities are learning they cannot ignore these protests.

"It's a message, it's a wake-up call both for the Burmese government and for the Chinese that they have to, sort of, take local considerations into effect a little bit more, they need to be more effective in dealing with public relations. I'm sure that they will be. Again, you know that we've already seen the Chinese start to take some positive actions in this regard and I expect that that will continue," he said.

VOA contacted China’s Embassy in Burma about the controversy. In an e-mail response, authorities acknowledged the right to protest but also defended the pipeline project as promoting development and livelihoods.

It says the Chinese state oil company spent $14 million building infrastructure, schools and hospitals along the pipeline and will spend a further $2 million per year.

It remains an open question whether that compensation satisfies local Burmese, who are increasingly exercising their new political freedoms.