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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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?”