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Rakhine Pipeline Brings Gas to China,

Hardship to Villagers

Images by
Yu Yu Myint Than
Text by
Yu Yu Myint Than and Paul Vrieze
JUNE 2015, MADAY ISLAND, Rakhine State — “Welcome to Maday Island,” said the boatman as we approached a grey shape barely visible through the heavy monsoon rains. My ferry ride to the island in the Bay of Bengal had taken two hours from the coastal city of Kyauk Phyu in Myanmar's Rakhine state.

As Maday and Ramree islands are the site of a Special Economic Zone and the starting point for the China-backed Shwe Gas pipeline, I expected to find decent roads to explore the island, but quickly learned that improvement of roads used by local villagers was not part of the project.

Yu Yu Myint Than/NRGI
“The roads are all gone and no motorcycle can pass. You have no choice but to get there on foot,” one local told me when I asked for a bike ride to Ywar Ma Village. With the help of a villager, I set out down the slippery mud road with my heavy backpack. We couldn't walk properly and along the way I saw students coming back from school barefoot, carrying their slippers to avoid these from getting stuck in mud.

It was the first indication of how Myanmar’s biggest and most profitable foreign investment project was providing few benefits to local residents since it began under the former junta in 2009. Instead, residents said, the project has led to land confiscation with little compensation, loss of livelihoods, and repression by local authorities. 

Yu Yu Myint Than/NRGI
A boon for companies Maday Island is the site of a deep sea port, while Ramree is where is two underwater pipelines channeling oil and natural gas from two offshore blocks come ashore. From there it is moved to a parallel overland oil and gas pipeline that traverses Rakhine State, Magwe and Mandalay regions, and Shan State, before crossing the China-Myanmar border and ultimately ending in Kunming, Yunnan Province’s capital.

The joint venture between China’s state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), is estimated to produce gas and oil revenues worth a total of US$54 billion over 30 years of operation. Most of it comes from Myanmar's Shwe gas field, which was discovered in 2004, and is controlled by a consortium including MOGE, Korea’s Daewoo International, ONGC Videsh, KOGAS and GAIL.

The on-land construction of the gas pipeline, which came online in 2013, has been marred by reports of human rights abuses, worsening ethnic conflict and negative impacts on local livelihoods all along its path, though companies involved have also provided millions of dollars to build schools and hospitals for communities.

Yu Yu Myint Than/NRGI
A burden for communities When the clock struck six in the evening on Maday Island, almost everyone disappeared to charge their phones, torches and power banks, or to iron clothes and watch TV. Despite the presence of a deep sea port, and an oil and gas hub, Maday Island communities only have access to electricity from 6:00 pm to 10:30 pm.

Resident Ko Phyu Thee said companies involved in the project had assured communities they would benefit from the project but, he added, “Where is the 24-hour electricity? Where are the good roads? They just gave us false hope.”

The project’s heaviest impact, however, has been on farmers who have lost land to it since 2009.

Yu Yu Myint Than/NRGI
Maday Island used to be famous for its agriculture, boatman Ko Sit Naing told me. “In the olden days, there were lots of passengers from Maday Island travelling to sell their crops in Kyauk Phyu, and some people from Kyauk Phyu came and bought produce from the island,” he said. “I have had fewer customers since the pipeline project started because the farming business is not as good as it was before… Now there are only a few farmers left on Maday Island.”

When confiscations first occurred most villagers, fearful of oppression by the junta, accepted whatever compensation they were given. U Tun Maung Nu told me, “How could we say no? How bitter I felt to see how they destroyed our farmland with bulldozers!”

Many villagers still feel unfairly treated; only lands under cultivation were paid for, while plots of forest used to grow valuable Ironwood, used as a building material, were regarded as ‘vacant.’ On Maday Island, a total of 114 acres belonging to 30 farmers were reportedly seized without compensation.

Today, many former farmers lack the skills to earn a living outside of agriculture, while new jobs that the project would supposedly bring have not materialized.

“They promised us that they would give job opportunities, especially to the people who lost their land,” Thar Zar Gyi  from Ywar Ma village said. “Yes, I got some temporary jobs, like painting and carrying bricks during the construction period, but now I am jobless. No supervisor asks me to come and work now.”

“I agree with their point that we need skills," he added. "So why don't they support training? It's alright for middle-aged people and older people like me but they should give training to the young people. My son is jobless now and he is 22. We don't have any farming land left or enough money to buy land to work.”

Those who still have land are trying to live on as farmers, but they remember a better past. U Aung told me, “Before, we didn't need to worry about next year once we finished harvesting this year. Now most of us have to worry for the next day. Who will give us rice for free?”

Yu Yu Myint Than/NRGI
Yu Yu Myint Than/NRGI

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Repression of dissentThe Shwe Gas project is one several China-backed mega projects approved by the former junta that continue to anger the Myanmar public and local communities, who feel they benefit only China and the army. Two others, the Myitsone hydropower dam and the Letpadaung copper mine, led to such fierce protests that the dam was suspended, while the mining deal was amended.

On Maday Island on 18 April 2013, some 300 people staged the largest protest yet against the project. Authorities cracked down on the unauthorised assembly, which are banned under the Code of Criminal Procedure’s Article 144, a repressive order issued a year before. Ten people were arrested and later released on bail awaiting trial, according to the Shwe Gas Movement, an activist group opposing the project.

Yu Yu Myint Than/NRGI
However, former President Thein Sein’s transitional government appeared more responsive to the complaints and fortunes may be changing for some residents. CNPC and MOGE recently promised to provide compensation for the more than 100 acres of ‘vacant’ land seized. The price struck between the company and a local civil society group is reportedly 10 lakh kyats per acre (or approximately $785 per acre).

Still, it remains to be seen whether companies will uphold the bargain. As resident Daw Hla Thein Ye put it, “They've promised us many things since the start. I can only relax when their promise comes true.”

The UNEARTH project is supported by the Natural Resource Governance Institute and was initiated as part of its Extractive Industries Photo Documentary Project.