The Distribution of Power in Burma

By Francis Wade 25 May 2012

They run like surgical incisions across the breadth of Burma, traversing rivers and passing within spitting distance of villages—often coursing straight through them.

The dual oil and gas pipelines that will help fuel the development of southern China hold few promises for Burma itself, whose perennial energy shortfall is now on trial following mass protests across the country this week.

In villages surrounding Hsipaw, one of the last stops before the pipelines enter China from Shan State, there is a sense that developments have not been properly explained to locals, even those who were dragooned into aiding the venture.

Sai Kyaw was in the wrong place last August when a group of Burmese troops on security detail for the pipeline went searching for assistance, and he was ordered to carry equipment for several hours along the route.

He spoke to The Irrawaddy from the porch of his house around five kilometres west of Hsipaw—the pipeline lies merely meters from his front yard, slicing through what was once a cluster of paddy fields.

His expression remained vacant as I explained that the steel cylinders were pointing in the direction of China, although he understood that the men clad in red boiler suits that took up residence in the field a couple of years ago are Chinese laborers.

In some construction sites along the pipeline, Chinese outnumber Burmese three-to-one. There is little in the way of development multipliers in any of China’s overseas projects—Beijing stipulates that companies must take with them their own workers, and this, coupled with the fact that the gas being extracted from Burmese blocks in the Bay of Bengal will not be distributed within the power-starved domestic market, is a source of continual anger.

Other factors also come into play. “The Burmese government buys weapons with the proceeds from the pipeline, and will come back and shoot all the Shan,” says Ai Sai, a farmer whose land was confiscated in 2010.

His concerns point to the acute distrust Shan have towards of the majority Burman, which has been sown over decades of mistreatment. “Shan people feel colonized by the Burmese—before it was the Japanese and British, and now it’s the Burmese again.”

There is even a wariness of Aung San Suu Kyi’s newfound place in Parliament, given the broken promises that followed her father’s signing of the Panglong Agreement in 1947, which proffered full autonomy for Shan Atate. Will she be any different? “We’ve no idea if life will get better with her in Parliament. She does a lot for the Burman, but not the Shan.”

The opposition leader has cautiously invited business into Burma, and backs the European and US decision to suspend sanctions on investment. Rights groups warn, however, that a military-business nexus persists, and that amid all the reform talk, no rules have been implemented to lessen the damage caused by investment, particularly in the energy sector.

This remains a raw topic of conversation in Hsipaw. No consultations took place prior to people being moved off their land to make way for the pipeline—no permission was asked, and only a small number of people were given options of where to relocate to.

The ostensible dehumanization of families living within the 1,100-kilometre pipeline corridor only adds to the sense that they are merely obstacles that need dispensing with. Indeed, one survey by EarthRights International in March last year found that none of the 100 people interviewed in Shan State were in favor of the pipeline.

But emboldened by a reworking of Burma’s labor union law and a sense that at least some in the government are reluctant to clamp down on the opposition, a nascent farmers’ union is forming in Hsipaw.

I sat with around 20 men in a house on the edge of town who had in one way or another been affected by the pipeline—the majority victims of land confiscation, an issue often brushed under the carpet in the wider discussion of human rights abuses in Burma.

One said he received US $1,830 in compensation after he was forced off his land in September last year—others say they received up to $3,660 for one acre of confiscated farmland.

In northern Shan State, however, particularly around the town of Nam Kham, land prices are higher due to more fertile land, and thus compensation for one acre has sometimes reached $18,500. Over the border in China, authorities have offered substitute land as well as money.

Even a year ago the prospect of forming a body to bring attention and accountability to the abuses would have been unthinkable. But these farmers paint a mixed picture of the current situation. While the nominal progress in Burma has meant a relaxation across various sectors of governance, many feel it’s a selective attitude shift reserved for the upper rungs of the President Thein Sein administration—at the local level, away from international eyes, authorities continue to intimidate and harass complainants.

This union will evolve very gradually, the farmers say. If they feel confident in the next year or so, then they will attempt to register it, but if local politics remains the same, then the risks are too great.

Animosity towards the pipeline is not shared by all in Hsipaw, however. Ye Htun occupies a seat in Burma’s Lower House and although he acknowledges that the money generated by the project will help bolster the 23 percent of the government budget that goes directly to the military, he thinks there are benefits.

“Villagers have not been involved in the decision-making process, but they have got a lot of money,” said the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party MP. “In the past some projects in this area offered little money, so no one wants the compensation. But compared with that, this [compensation for the pipeline] is a lot of money.”

The farmers were “happy” to receive the reparation, he said, and were told by the China National Petroleum Company (CNPC), which is building the pipeline, that they would be allowed to return to their land in three years time.

There may be problems with this, however. Excavation of the soil—the pipelines will eventually be sunk into a six-foot deep trench—has left the much of the surrounding land covered in rocks. Moreover, irrigation pipes are now impeded by the pipeline—some will have to travel beneath in tubes that are too narrow to deliver sufficient water.

There’s a candid realization, however, that resistance to the project pales in comparison to those backing it. Even UN chief Ban Ki-moon labeled it “a win-win situation” during his tenure as Korean foreign minister—Korean giant Daewoo International has a large stake in the project. Add that to the slew of governments with capital to earn from it—India, Korea, China and, of course, Burma—and the balance of power tips overwhelmingly in favor of the project.

But what plays into the farmers’ hands is a budding confidence among the Burmese population regarding the ability to speak out. Thousands continue to protest the perpetual blackouts, caused largely by Naypyidaw’s eagerness to auction its energy supplies off to neighbors and then pocket the proceeds.

Shows of force such as these, the majority of which have occurred in Burman-dominated urban centers, demonstrate that the Hsipaw farmers, whose grievances are echoed by the protestors, may have gained an unexpected ally. Moreoever, they come at a time when Western business is hungrily eyeing Burma, and offer a reminder of how corrupt the distribution of power is—in both senses of the word.