Hundreds of residents protested Thursday against a China-backed petroleum pipeline project in western Burma’s Rakhine state over inadequate compensation and demands that the project developer provide better transportation infrastructure and higher salaries for local workers.
Around 400 people gathered to protest the Shwe Gas Project in Maday Island off the coast of Kyaukpyu town in the Bay of Bengal, also complaining that the project had polluted rivers which fishermen in the area had depended on for their catch.
“We protested today because we want the world see that the project is not making the lives of local residents better—it has only made things worse,” protester Tun Kyi told RFA’s Burmese Service.
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).
Tun Kyi said that residents had received compensation payment for only half of the area expropriated for the project, including a mountain owned by local residents from Maday Island.
But CNPC representatives claimed the company had made the full payment, he said, suggesting that part of the compensation has been unaccounted for.
“The Chinese businessmen are treating the local people unfairly. They occupied more than 400 acres [162 hectares] and we received compensation for only about 200 acres [81 hectares],” he said.
“No one knows where the rest of the compensation went. A lot of residents have lost their property.”
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 said that residents went ahead with the protest on Thursday even though the authorities refused to give them a permit to hold the gathering. They had applied for the permit in December last year, he said.
“First, we applied to the township authorities to protest about our rights being trampled on, but they wouldn’t let us. Then we applied to the state-level authorities to protest, but our application was rejected again,” he said.
When the group gathered at a nearby monastery at around 10:00 a.m. to launch the protest on Thursday, he said, the Kyaukpyu township administrator told them that CNPC had agreed to meet with them to discuss their demands.
But following a meeting with CNPC representatives, the protesters remained unsatisfied and decided to press on with their demonstration at around 2:00 p.m., marching two miles (3.2 kilometers) to the company’s headquarters in Kyaukpyu town while the authorities looked on.
“They didn’t [stop us]. We had heard that we would be shot if we entered the CNPC compound, so we didn’t ask to go inside. We just stood in front of the office shouting, ‘We don’t want CNPC’ and ‘We residents won’t shut our mouths for CNPC’,” Tun Kyi said.
He said that the township administrator and chief of police approached them and asked them to return to their homes, but the protesters said they would not leave until their demands were met.
“We asked them how they could help us to solve this problem. They told us that they would meet with someone from the CNPC on Friday at the [company’s] Social Eco office to discuss our demands.”
Protests to continue
Tun Kyi said that CNPC had created the office to negotiate with the community and to meet with township administrators, but he had little faith in the company’s willingness to accept his group’s demands.
Around 70 percent of local residents are fishermen, but we can’t even support ourselves that way because CNPC has thrown debris from the construction into our rivers.”
As a result, many of the area fishermen have gone to work as laborers on the pipelines, but only make around 90,000 kyat (about U.S. $100) a month—30,000 kyat (U.S. $34) of which is kept by the construction companies for meal costs, according to a report by the Irrawaddy online journal.
While contracts show that the workers are paid 9,000 kyat (U.S. $10) per day, they actually receive only 3,000 kyat, with most of the rest going to the local agents who found them employment with the pipeline companies, Irrawaddy said.
Tun Kyi said the protesters had vowed to continue protesting if CNPC didn’t agree to their demands at Friday’s meeting and would post leaflets outlining their grievances.
He said they wouldn’t bother applying for permission to continue protests because they know that the authorities would not grant it.
“They might arrest us, but they won’t dare do it publicly.”
Construction on the Shwe Gas Project began in 2009 and is slated for completion in May this year.
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.
Each pipeline will cost U.S. $2 billion to build. Burma will earn U.S. $7 million per year in annual right-of-way fees to transport the fuel through its territory.
The oil pipeline is aimed at diversifying China's crude oil imports routes from the Middle East and Africa, and at avoiding traffic through the Strait of Malacca. Oil storage tanks will be built on an island near Kyaukpyu.
The Shwe Gas Project has created a controversy in much the same way the China-backed Myitsone Dam project did in Burma’s Kachin state two years ago—angering critics who saw the scheme benefiting the country’s northern neighbor while negatively affecting the lives of local inhabitants.
The megadam, which was designed to generate electricity mostly for export to China, was suspended by Burmese President Thein Sein’s reformist government after taking power from the former military junta in March 2011 due to public opposition.
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Zin Mar Win for RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.