Burma's Leaders face a New Environmental Dilemma

Having successfully persuaded the government to stop construction of the Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy River and close down a planned coal-fired energy plant at Dawei on the southern coast, Burmese protesters and their international allies have set their sights on the controversial Shwe pipeline, designed to stretch all the way across Burma to Yunnan in China.

The protests present a dilemma for the government, which must now learn to balance the antipathy of its citizens to exploitation of its natural resources against the vast amount of revenues that would be lost if the Shwe project were to follow the other two into oblivion. Under decades of military rule, protests against construction projects have been met with heavy-handed force. Now, if the government wants to speed up the democratization process, it must contend with what has become known as NIMBY – “not in my backyard” – in the west.

More than 125 organizations in 20 countries held demonstrations on March 1 and submitted a letter calling on President Thein Sein to postpone the trans-Burma oil and gas pipelines project, expressing serious concerns over human rights abuses as well as the social, economic and environmental impact on the Burmese people. Nearly 300 people participated in a demonstration in Yangon, wearing T-shirts with slogans like “Our Gas, Our Future.” At least nine activists were detained and interrogated by police for a brief period, but were freed. Another demonstration took place in the northern city of Chiang Mai in front of the Chinese consulate.

In their letter the protesting groups called attention to what they called “serious social, economic and environmental impacts of this project, including human rights abuses.”

“Thousands of acres of farm lands have been confiscated in Arakan and Shan States and Magwe and Mandalay divisions to clear the way for the pipeline corridor and related infrastructure,” the letter said, with the livelihoods of local fishing families in Arakan State destroyed due to development of offshore infrastructure for the pipeline project. The letter also called attention to militarization along the pipeline as protest from local residents has required suppression by the military.

If the government buckled under to the demands of its citizens to close down the dam and the coal-fired plant, the Shwe pipeline complex is something else entirely. Shutting it down in the face of public opposition would cost billions. The income to the government from the pipeline would dwarf what it expected to receive from the Myitsone Dam project.

Cancellation would probably also put the newly responsive government headed by Thein Sein on a direct confrontation path with hardliners in the government, said to be led by Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo and Htay Oo, general secretary of the Union Solidarity and Development Party, who have been described as intent on derailing the reform process despite the cautious approval of governments across the world for the year-old government. Originally installed in what was universally viewed as a rigged election, the government has dramatically expanded freedoms, freed democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and allowed her to stand in an upcoming by-election.

The US$2.5 billion pipeline, being built by the Korean construction firm Daewoo International, is actually a spiderweb of lines designed to deliver 12 million metric tons of oil and 12 billion cubic meters of natural gas from Burma’s offshore Shwe field annually 771 kilometers across Myanmar to Kunming in China. The natural gas pipeline will extend another 2,100 km into China. It is being built under the auspices of the China National Petroleum Corp. and and Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise. CNPC will hold a 50.9 percent of the project and manage it, MOGE owning the other 49.1 percent.

Major controversy has developed over the project, not least because of its environmental implications but also because it is regarded by a major segment of the country’s citizenry to be delivering Myanmar’s precious natural resources to China. The Myitsone Dam, with generating capacity of 7,600 megawatts, was expected to deliver 80 percent of its power to China despite the fact that70 percent of Myanmar itself is without electricity.

“China has colonized Burma without shooting a gun and has sucked the life of the people of Burma with the help of the Burmese regime and its cronies,” exiled democracy advocate U Aung Din told reporters recently as quoted in an earlier Asia Sentinel story. “Now, they are killing the Irrawaddy River as well.”

With a population similar in size to Thailand’s but with less than 8 percent of its neighbor’s electricity generating capacity, Myanmar has only about 2,000 megawatts (MW) of generating capacity against Thailand’s 26,000 MW. Rural, poverty-stricken Laos, with a population of only 6 million, has generating capacity equal to Burma’s. The coal-fired plant at Dawei in southern Myanmar would have delivered another 4,000 MW.

An anti-pipeline group called the Shwe Gas Movement estimates that as many as 15,000 residents of 20 townships will be forced to move to make way for the construction. Rebels of the minority Shan state, through which the pipeline runs, have sought to stop it, with troops attempting to drive out the rebels. Heavy fighting erupted last March over the construction. “Resentment of these pipelines is growing day by day. Thein Sein should listen to the will of the people,” Shwe Gas Movement's Wong Aung told reporters at the Chiang Mai rally. “Under the current unaccountable structure, gas monies from the project will only feed corruption and not benefit the people.”

If the decision to kill the Myitsone project surprised and irritated the Chinese government, stopping the Shwe pipeline would probably infuriate them. The pipeline is projected not only as a major source of income for the government, but a major source of energy for the energy-starved Chinese, whose needs are growing at about a 9 percent annual clip.

The oil portion of the pipeline would deliver crude that now must travel on supertankers from Africa and the Middle East through the Malacca Strait. The pipeline would provide a much faster method of delivery. There are strategic considerations as well, with the Strait of Malacca heavily patrolled by US Navy ships. If there were a confrontation between the US and China, that would complicate matters considerably.