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China’s Myanmar bonanza sans responsibility amidst gory clashes between majority Buddhists, Rohingiya Muslim settlers

People in Rakhine state protest against Sino-Mayanmar pipeline
By Nava Thakuria*
As the world media continues focusing on Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, its giant neighbour China is not just maintaining aloofness. It is utilizing, full scale, two fuel pipelines, originating in the trouble-torn Arakan (also known as Rakhine), province of western Burma (former name of Myanmar). 
The China-Myanmar gas and crude oil pipelines connect Kyaukphyu port of Rakhine – lately in news for the gory clashes between majority Buddhists and Rohingya Muslim settlers – with the Kunming city in south-western part of China. The pipelines are designed to shift crude oil from the Middle-East and Africa through Myanmar with the aim of feeding the world’s second-biggest oil consumer nation.
Thanks to these pipelines, the Chinese authorities no longer need to depend on the troublesome cargo shipping through South China Sea (around 5,000 km sailing) for its crude oil imports for the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) run refineries in Yunnan.
The 770 kilometre-long China-Burma pipeline which passes through Myanmar is owned and built by Beijing with the budget of USD 1.5 billion under its One Belt, One Road policy, and is expected to transfer around 22 million tons of crude oil annually (around 442,000 barrels a day). The pipeline is expected to shift nearly 6% of China's total imports (as per the 2016 record).
The pipelines are a joint venture of CNPC (with 50.95 percent stake) and Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE, 49.1 %). Myanmar desperately needs financial support, which it can claim from the road-right fee of US $13.81 million for the pipeline annually, along with a transit fee of $1 per ton of crude oil under a 30-year agreement. Moreover, Myanmar can take two million tonnes of crude oil annually from the pipelines for its consumption.
The agreement between the two neighbouring countries to build the first pipeline from the Bay of Bengal to China’s Yunnan province was signed in 2009 and subsequently the works started next year. The 793 km natural gas pipeline was already made operational by 2015 with the transmission capacity of 12 billion cubic meters annually from the Shwe offshore field.
Another oil pipeline, parallel to it across Myanmar, was also planned for starting operation the same year, but because of political differences between the two countries, and also public resistances, things got delayed. Activists claim, over 20,000 indigenous people would lose livelihoods because of confiscation of arable lands for the project. 
Pipeline construction under progress
In early 2017 Myanmar President Htin Kyaw went to Beijing and witnessed the signing of an operational agreement in presence of Chinese President Xi Jinping on 10 April. The most trusted ally of Daw Aung Sun Suu Kyi, one who runs the democratically-elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government as a de-facto chief, has committed to make the oil pipeline operational at the earliest.
The strategic relationship between China and Myanmar lately emerges triumphant. Notably, the two countries have enjoyed a trusted diplomatic relationship for long.
The then a semi-democratic government in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1949 soon after the Chinese Communist Party led by Mao Zedong emerged victorious in all battle fronts. Later both the countries established a formal diplomatic relationship in 1950. It was followed by the anti-Chinese uprising in 1967, when the agitating Burmese people targeted the Chinese embassy in Rangoon. The Communist Chinese government took hard stand against General Ne Win-led Burmese regime.
Later, when the south-east Asian country went under complete military rules, the tie with Beijing improved visibly by 1080s. After the August 8, 1988 Burmese uprising that collapsed Ne Win’s regime and paved the way for the military junta to rule the country, China became friendlier to Burma, as the international community started isolating the General Than Swe led regime. 
The military dictators rejected the outcome of 1990 general elections, where Suu Kyi’s NLD won landslide victory, and even put the Nobel peace laureate under house arrest. Slowly Myanmar became more dependent on China and this continued till a quasi-democratic government took the power at Naypyitaw (Myanmar’s new capital) in 2011.
Former Myanmar President Thein Sein, who took some strong decisions against China including the suspension of the Beijing-owned Myitsone hydropower project in Kachin province, tried to build closer ties with the Europe and USA. The relationship survived with the initiative of Myanmar’s state counselor and foreign minister Suu Kyi again. Meanwhile, opposition to the projects surfaced as the Myanmar-China Pipeline Watch Committee warned that oil spills could severely affect the land, with the coastal ecosystem harming the livelihood of thousands of Myanmar residents.
The umbrella body of local community-based organizations urged the authorities to adopt efficient measures to prevent oil spills along the pipeline. The rights body also raised voices for the Burmese farmers, who handed over their arable lands to the project authorities, even though they were yet to receive compensation. Both the pipelines are laid in parallel through the under-developed country and the affected villagers were assured adequate compensations by the Chinese authority, but it has not turned into reality, adds the forum.
Of course, the CNPC claims that the project was materialized keeping an eye to the environment protection and land restoration. Moreover, emphasize was given on community development activities like building of schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, power and water supply, telecommunication arrangements etc for the benefit of affected families across Myanmar.
Earth Rights International (ERI), a nongovernmental nonprofit organization, combining the power of law and people in defense of environment and human rights, has expressed happiness that the Chinese investors had succeeded in operating the projects after some delays. However, it argues that “there are still some major issues waiting to be solved, such as land compensation to communities, safety concerns, and ecological restoration at the project site”.
“The CNPC as one of the main investors should keep their commitment to health, safety, and the environment and solve these problems with the effective consultation with local communities,” says Valentina Stackl, communications manager of USA based ERI, while responding to Asia Sentinel’s queries. She also added that when Myanmar was under the military government, the affected communities had no choice but to remain silent even their legal rights were seriously violated. After the election of the NLD, more and more communities have started to stand up for their rights, not just on projects with Chinese investors, but all potential delinquent investors, states Valentina.
Lately, the justified demand for its own share of benefits started rising as a public representative of Myanmar’s Shan province came out with raising voices that the benefit (in terms of annual revenue) of the pipelines should go to his province government too. Shan lawmaker Nang Kham Aye, while reacting to Myanmar minister Tun Naing’s comment about the share of benefits out of the project, asserted that all stake holders should get their dues.
---
* Guwahati-based senior journalist

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