China’s Power Grab

Published on Jun 02 2011 // Featured Analysis

At a time when frequent power outages are disrupting people’s lives and businesses in Burma, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is now in Naypidaw, in all likelihood forging deals to export  more energy resources from the country.

We, members of the Shwe Gas Movement, ask a simple question: what benefit will Premier Jiabao’s visit bring to the people of Burma?

In addition to the regular disruption of people’s daily activities, an acute lack of access to grid electricity—and the related financial burden of purchasing diesel fuel and generators—has been detrimental to economic development in Burma.

Just last week the Ministry of Energy discontinued the supply of electricity to industrial zones across Rangoon Division, potentially leading to the layoff of thousands of workers. It is ironic that in the same week when Premier Jiabao is making deals with the military junta to export energy resources to China, local businesses in Rangoon are forced to shut-down their operations due to lack of access to electricity.

While the details of the meeting between the Chinese premier and junta officials have not been made public, it is likely that exploitation and export of Burma’s natural resources will occupy the bulk of the discussion.

China will be making bids to begin more extractive industry developments in Burma in order to satisfy the nation’s rising energy needs and to fulfill its energy security strategy. A major pillar of this strategy is the construction of the Trans-Burma Corridor from Arakan State to Yunnan Province. The corridor will include twin pipelines which will transport natural gas from the Bay of Bengal as well as crude oil from further afield. Having access to the Indian Ocean is crucial for China because it will allow the by-passing of the Malacca Strait during the transport of resources and goods from the Middle East and Africa.

Chinese forays into the extractive industry in Burma have in the past led to a multitude of negative impacts for the local communities including human rights abuses, destruction of local livelihoods and environmental degradation.

Chinese state-owned firms Sinohydro, China National Heavy Machinery Company and China National Petroleum Company are just some of the names that are involved in extractive industry developments including a string of hydro-electric dams on the Salween River, mining in Kachin State, and the aforementioned Trans-Burma pipelines.

The construction of the pipelines started in late 2009, and even at this early stage negative impacts on local communities have been documented by Shwe Gas Movement fact-finders, including human rights abuses such as forced eviction and relocation, land confiscation and forced labor.

During the initial phases of construction in Arakan State, the land and houses of local villagers have been confiscated and they have been forced to relocate away from the pipeline route without compensation. More than 1,000 acres of paddy land has been confiscated in the Kyaukphyu Township area alone, leaving the local farmers with no other means to make a living.

From Arakan State, the 771-km pipeline will pass through densely populated Magwe and Mandalay divisions in central Burma, and Shan State in the northeast of the country.

A recent statement by Ye Dabo, the Chinese ambassador to Burma, highlighted the government’s commitment to support the Burmese junta in achieving “the realization of national reconciliation, social stability, economic development and the upgrading of people’s living standards.”

In reality, the current domestic energy crisis combined with human rights abuses perpetrated by the Burmese army in areas hosting extractive industry developments are a recipe for future conflicts and the displacement of refugees to neighboring countries, including China.

Rather than leading to “national reconciliation, social stability, economic development and the upgrading of people’s living standards” these projects are in fact increasing instability and anti-Chinese sentiment within Burma. The ambassador has clarified the Chinese government position that “a stable and healthy China-Myanmar [Burma] relationship is not only in the fundamental interests of both countries, but also conducive to peace and stability in the region.”

Unfortunately, when China is engaging with the Burmese military regime in implementation of extractive development projects without proper impact assessments, this stability remains elusive.

Wong Aung is global coordinator of  the Thailand-based Shwe Gas Movement, which is concerned with the impact of natural gas pipeline projects presently unfolding in Arakan State in western Burma.

By WONG AUNG
News : Irrawaddy