PR Event by Shwe Gas Pipeline Developers Provides Few Answers

By Paul Vrieze 11 May 2013

RANGOON—Two Chinese firms involved in the development of the Shwe gas pipeline held a media briefing on Friday in an attempt to explain how the controversial Chinese mega project would support Burma’s socio-economic development.

The information that was provided however, did little to address the numerous concerns over the project’s social and human rights impacts, while some media organizations were even prevented from participating in the event.

The Shwe Gas project is a joint venture between Chinese state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation and the former junta-linked Myanmar Oil & Gas Enterprise. The oil and gas pipeline runs from Kyaukpyu Township on Burma’s Arakan State coast to Kunming, southern China, providing the region with an important connection to Burma’s offshore Shwe gas field.

The pipeline, which is expected to come online this year, passes through 21 townships, including several conflict-ridden ethnic areas in northern Burma, and spans 800 km (500 miles) across the country.

Burmese civil society organizations have documented a litany of rights abuses and negative social impacts all along the path of the project, and they are calling for it to be suspended. Thousands villagers have reportedly suffered from land confiscation, forced labor and an increased military presence.

The Chinese government signed an agreement with Burma’s former military regime in 2008 to build the Shwe Gas pipeline. Like the Chinese-backed Letpadaung copper mine in northwest Burma, the project is unpopular with the general public as it is viewed as benefiting only China, the military and its business cronies.

According to some estimates, Burma’s central government will earn about US $29 billion from the project over the next three decades.

Southeast Asia Gas Pipeline Company Ltd. and Southeast Asia Crude Oil Pipeline Company Ltd, two major stakeholders in the project, held a press event at Rangoon’s Sedona Hotel on Friday in an attempt to highlight the project’s benefits for Burma.

The Chinese firms however, had invited some media organizations while leaving out others. When reporters from The Irrawaddy and the BBC turned up for the event they were denied access.

A Chinese company representative told the excluded reporters that some organizations were “selected” because “we have been in contact with these media for a long time.”

At the event, the firms presented a brochure on the pipeline development. The document’s preface states that “The project has a positive significance for economy and society of both countries and obtains wide support and affirmation across Myanmar.” Chinese project developers, it said, are “sticking to the commercial principles of ‘open, transparent and lawful operations.’”

The document focused on the dozens of community support projects that the firms have built near the pipeline, adding that $20 million was set aside for the construction of local schools, health clinics and government buildings.

The brochure briefly touches upon land acquisition, but fails to detail prior consultation methods or complaint mechanisms for communities that are losing land to the pipeline.

It states that the Thailand-based International Environmental Management Ltd. has been contracted to carry out an assessment of the environmental and social impacts of the project “in accordance with… World Bank guidelines.” The findings of the assessment however, have not been made public.

After presenting the brochure to reporters, Chinese company representatives answered a few questions about the investment project, which reportedly will cost $4 billion to construct.

In recent months, 400 villagers at Maday Island, in Arakan State’s Kyaukpyu Township, have protested against the pipeline as they feel they have been inadequately compensated for a loss of land. In April, local authorities charged 10 community representatives under the Unlawful Associations Act in order to suppress local dissent.

Reporters asked if the Chinese developers would offer further support for the affected island community, perhaps by installing electricity supply. “The company is not responsible for building infrastructure… Our main responsibility is to do business in accordance with government rules and regulations, and to pay taxes,” a company representative replied in a recording of the interview.

Wong Aung, an activist at the Shwe Gas Movement, said that the Chinese firms’ public relations event on Friday had failed to address the dearth of information about the pipeline and its impacts.

“From the beginning there has been a total lack of transparency and accountability for this project,” he said, adding that it was “totally unfair” that some media organizations were excluded from the press briefing.

Asked if the Shwe Gas project would bring any benefits to the Burmese people, Wong Aung said, “We do appreciate the socio-economic benefits that the community projects bring, but this is very small amount of money compared the billions of dollars that they will make from this project.”