Burmese authorities charged six villagers with illegal assembly on Friday for protesting a controversial China-backed pipeline project in western Rakhine state which they say is destroying their community’s livelihood.
The six were believed to be among organizers of mass protests on Thursday against the Shwe Gas Project, a joint venture largely between the official petroleum groups of China and Burma in Maday Island off the coast of Kyaukpyu town in the Bay of Bengal.
They were charged with holding the demonstrations without official permits.
According to reports, a number of Maday residents who work as laborers for Beijing’s state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) were fired Friday for protesting the project.
About 400 people had participated in the protests, complaining they were inadequately compensated after giving up their land for the project and demanding that the project developers provide better transportation infrastructure and higher salaries for local workers.
The group had applied for permits to protest in December at both the Kyaukpyu township and Rakhine state level, but were rejected both times.
Maung Maung Myint, Sai Aye, Myo Naing, Yein Hla, Maung Maung Soe and Thein Kyaw, who had led the protests in front of the developer’s office in Kyaukpyu, were brought in for questioning at the Maday Island police station and informed of the charge against them on Friday morning.
They were allowed to post bail.
“They questioned us for about an hour,” Maung Maung Myint told RFA’s Burmese Service. “They told us that we were being charged because we had protested without permission.”
“We had to bail ourselves out and we had to promise that we would come to see [the police] whenever they want us.”
Sai Aye said that the police had tried to determine who were behind Thursday’s protest, participated in by residents of Maday’s Ywarma, Pahteinse, Kyauttan, and Painywar villages.
“They asked us where we got the protest T-shirts that we wore during the demonstration and which organization had helped us,” he said.
“I answered that I didn’t know where the shirts came from. There were only individuals who led us.”
The men said that Tun Kyi, a prominent member of the protest, had also been brought in for questioning Friday, but did not say whether he had been charged.
The Shwe Gas Project is a joint venture between Beijing’s state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and Burma’s national petroleum company Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise.
A conglomerate of two other companies from Burma, another company from China, two firms from India, and one from South Korea also have a stake in the joint venture, South East Asia Gas Pipeline Co, Ltd (SEAGP).
CNPC is constructing two pipelines to transport oil purchased in the Middle East and gas purchased in Burma’s Shwe Bay to China, beginning in September. Construction on the Shwe Gas Project began in 2009 and is slated for completion in May this year.
Protesters said they had received compensation payment for only half of the 400 acres [162 hectares] expropriated for the project, including a mountain owned by local residents from Maday Island, despite claims by CNPC representatives that the company had made the full payment.
Protesters also wanted the company to build better transportation infrastructure from the crude oil jetty at Maday Island to the nearby villages of Kyauttan, Ywarma, and Panhteinse, and to supply the area with electricity before continuing with the project.
They also called on CNPC to create more job opportunities for local workers and to pay them at international rates.
Tun Kyi told RFA on Thursday that the Kyaukpyu township administrator and chief of police had promised to meet with CNPC officials to discuss the protesters’ demands. It was unclear Friday whether the meeting took place.
He said the group would continue protests if their demands were not met, regardless of whether they were given permission to demonstrate.
The Shwe Gas Project has angered critics who see the scheme benefiting Burma’s northern neighbor China while negatively affecting the lives of local inhabitants.
Thein Lwin, a resident of Kyaukpyu, said that CNPC had taken the local land and thrown construction debris in area rivers, leaving villagers who traditionally fish and farm with no livelihood.
“Our lands and fields were occupied and we can’t fish in the rivers for sustenance anymore,” he said.
“People from 27 villages on Yanbwye Island and five villages in Ann township are also suffering from these problems.”
A representative from the Zin Local Development Foundation, which acts as an observer to the Shwe Gas Project, said his group doesn’t believe that the project is in the interest of the local population.
“Since this project began, no one knows anything about it. Local people lost their land and can’t fish because of the project. While CNPC has developed the area in some ways, they are mostly unnecessary for residents while neglecting what they really need,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“We aren’t assessing the advantages and disadvantages of projects before they are agreed to in Burma. Projects must only be undertaken after they are agreed to by the local population.”
Member of parliament Aung Myat Kyaw also spoke out against the U.S. $2 billion project on Friday, saying that local residents must be assured they will see some of the U.S. $7 million per year profits Burma will earn for right-of-way fees to transport the fuel through its territory.
“The country will make billions of U.S. dollars in profit from this project [over time],” he said.
“The government must inform the people how it intends to use this profit for local development.”
Reported by Zin Mar Win and Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.