Burma has been ruled by military regimes since 1962. In response, larger pro-democracy uprisings have spontaneously burst out–most prominently in 1962, 1974, 1988 and 1996–but have each time been crushed by military force, leaving thousands dead. Since 1962, only one election has been allowed by the regime. In 1990, following extensive international pressure, the Burmese populous elected a group of parliamentarians who have yet to be allowed to convene. Even worse, many of those remain under arrest, unable to enjoy even the basic freedom of movement. There are currently over 1,400 political prisoners in Burma’s prisons, in addition to the Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest since May 2003.
Normally, the Burmese military regime (State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC) maintains a sophisticated intelligence apparatus in urban areas, which brings distrust and fear. In rural areas, where foreigners do not have permanent presence, the government uses more direct force to set examples against dissent.
Years of this oppression have subdued the majority of the people of Burma into silence, and few people dare to question orders and development plans by the military. Many people flee into neighbouring countries as refugees or migrant workers. In 2004, the number of refugees reached approximately 170,000, with the number of migrant workers hovering around 1.7 million people, Thailand, India and Bangladesh.
Communication in Burma is limited by laws in which ownership of an unregistered fax or computer lead to prison sentences of between 7-15 years. Understandably, Burma has the least Internet users per capita in the world. Censors block a multitude of websites and the political use of computers is obviously banned.
In this environment, the military government, rather than consulting with the people, gives orders regarding “the development of the nation.” Decisions are made behind closed doors, and agreements are made between the military and foreign corporations, leaving the Burmese people out of the equation and communities facing the facts.
The currently developing Shwe gas project follows this formula of military-style development. The majority of the people of Arakan and Chin states have not been informed about the project, nor have they been consulted about the pipeline route.
“on the use of our gas”
Not only are the people of Western Burma largely unaware of the project itself, few know that they will not be able to use the Shwe gas, despite both Chin and Arakan States lacking access to the national gas and electricity grids. Instead, the Burmese military has plans to export the gas to West Bengal (India) and possibly South Korea.
At the same time, most Arakanese and Chin villages completely lack electricity. Even Arakan’s capital Sittwe, a city of over 160,000 people, is dependent on six diesel generators for electricity, which is rationed out for only three hours per night — with regular power cuts.
Fuel wood is the source of approx. 80% of Burma’s energy consumption, including household cooking, and in Arakan and Chin states this figure is considerably higher. A majority of the population has to spend considerable time and resources to obtain firewood for the day, through collection or purchase at markets.
Burma’s natural gas resources are thus being extracted not for the benefit of the Burmese people and local industries, but for the benefit of the military regime, foreign governments, and corporations.