Since China began its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in late 2013, disguising its geostrategic attempts at pursuing hegemony with economic statecraft, there are increasing numbers of in-depth reports and comments from international media on the dark side of the BRI, while Chinese media and institutions praise the BRI’s contribution to the global community.
However, not many records and solid disclosures of the real face of China’s investment or influence over different localities have been exposed. In order to reveal the situations behind China’s BRI projects in Southeast Asia, the author conducted a research fieldtrip to one of the BRI’s key targets, the Kyaukpyu region, to observe its socio-economic and environmental impact on the localities and the people of Myanmar. Through fieldwork and in-depth interviews, this analysis reveals the voices of Myanmar locals who’ve suffered from the negative impacts of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Kyaukpyu is an important township located in the Rakhine State in western Myanmar. With its convenient location and adequate port, coupled with the discovery of exploitable natural gas fields on the continental shelf of the Rakhine coast in 2004, Kyaukpyu’s strategic position has been greatly elevated. In June 2009, China and Myanmar signed the “Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and the Ministry of Energy of Myanmar on the Development, Operation and Management of the China-Myanmar Crude Oil Pipeline Project.”
The project included building up crude oil pipelines, storage and transportation facilities and their ancillary facilities, and the construction of a terminal and port for the unloading of crude oil from super-large oil tankers, accessible crude oil storage and transportation facilities, and other ancillary facilities on Maday Island, Myanmar. The starting point of the natural gas pipeline was at Kyaukpyu Port in Kyaukpyu and the starting point of the crude oil pipeline was at Maday Island outside Kyaukpyu.
After Myanmar experienced a democratic transition in 2011, opposition to Chinese-funded enterprises surfaced, such as protests with the greatest repercussions against the Myitsone Dam and the Letpadaung Copper Mine. Despite not gaining the local government’s permission, the Kyaukpyu region finally began demonstrations and protests in 2013. The residents of Kyaukpyu County, including those on Maday Island, also protested against unfair land acquisition and the difficulty in maintaining their livelihoods due to the entry of oil and gas pipelines. Farmers with expropriated land had no land to cultivate, and the construction of deep-water ports greatly depleted the catch yield of fishermen. They hoped that the CNPC would provide more jobs for local people with salary of international standards, but these appeals were not met. Then again in 2017, fishermen on Maday Island protested and demanded the CNPC protect the rights and interests of the fishermen. They also hoped the CNPC could be held accountable by building infrastructure, and providing residents with electricity and technical assistance. Although this protest was finally permitted by the local government, they were also asked to keep a distance from CNPC construction.
Were their needs eventually met after the two protests? The number of relative reports gradually decreased after 2017, and more and more reports of China manufaturing a positive impact on the locality have been published, praising China’s involvement in building primary schools, medical institutions, technical training institutions, providing tap water, electricity, etc. However, most of these reports were updated by state-controlled media, for example, Xinhua, or the Global Times. The international exposure of Maday Island and the neighboring region is seriously biased.
According to the author’s fieldtrip, at the starting point of the China-Myanmar crude oil pipeline, tankers from the Middle East usually arrived at the port of Maday Island to unload crude oil. Before the arrival of the CNPC, local residents did not expect a modern port, and they are free to fish in the neighboring area. As CNPC activated its project in the region, a deepwater port was built, where fishermen are prohibited to access to it. Local fiserhmen can only bypass the deepwater port and dock at the shallow beach behind. Accordingly, their fishing areas are seriously restricted.
In the past, the fishermen’s fishing range had no restrictions and they could get a full yield casting only one net. Now the deepwater area is occupied by the CNPC, and fishermen are excluded from that area and fishing space is significantly compressed. A local fisherman said, “One fisherman once entered the CNPC’s area and was intercepted by the local police. He received a slap in the face before he was released.”
In addition, the CNPC port project brought a lot of sediment due to land reclamation, which destroyed the marine ecology and made the livelihood of fishermen even more difficult. The fishermen also told the author: “Our fishing nets are frequently torn. When we cast our nets, the fishing nets get hooked by the shipping lane buoys due to the flow of water, resulting in holes in our fishing nets so many of the fish we catch escape.” Nowadays, fishermen must cast their nets at least 5 times to catch some fish and it is always accompanied by loads of sand.
There are 5 villages near the CNPC Project. The closest one is called Kyaumo Village, which was also harmed the most. Since this village is not officially recognized by the government, it is considered a “black village,” and their cries for help are often overlooked. Kyaumo Village was newly formed in response to the need for labor for the CNPC Construction project in 2009. Many residents from different villages in Maday Island gathered there to seek for job opportunities. After a while it became an unofficial village that existed but “was not recognized by law.”
Due to less attention paid by local authorities on Kyaumo Village, local residents negotiate directly with the CNPC to fight for their rights. Local parents requested the CNPC to build a new primary school for their children. The CNPC agreed but asked the locals to provide the required land as well as the architectural blueprints. However, after the residents raised the funds for all the required blueprints and prepared the land, the CNPC turned its back on the residents, unwilling to facilitate the construction. The residents were very disappointed.
Maday Island has 5 villages: Kyaumo, Ywarma, Pahteinse, Kyauttan, and Painywar. Compared to Kyaumo Village, the other 4 have all received some assistance from the CNPC due to their government recognized status. For example, in the Ywarma Village, the CNPC has provided a building for the teaching unit and a faculty dormitory on the existing campus of the public school. There are fewer people in the Kyauttan Village compared to Kyaumo Village, but the Kyauttan has a Chinese-funded primary school. The Painywar has a Chinese-funded medical institution.
A village chief told the author that after the protests happened in 2013 and 2017, the situation has not improved, and local residents’ requests have still not been satisfied. After the two protests, local residents received 1,700 feet of paved roads and 4 bridges for communication, but this infrastructure did not directly help the livelihood of local people. What’s worse, CNPC construction deprived these fishermen of their means of survival. Residents originally imagined that the investment of a foreign company would allow them access to new job opportunities. However, while there are 3,000 residents living on the island, only about 50 people have had the opportunity to work for the CNPC. These opportunities, according to the villagers, are only available through unique/unfair arrangements. This unjust development has therefore planted the seeds of dissatisfaction in the hearts of the villagers.
Do you hear the people sing?
There were about 700 households being affected by the CNPC project, most of them are fishermen and farmers. Their humble requests were mainly regarding the improvement of livelihoods and the right to work. The CNPC said that there would be 500,000 job opportunities in the construction of oil and gas pipelines, and local residents could get 50% of them, but, in fact, most of the residents did not have jobs from the CNPC, and they also lost their original jobs. For example, the No. 41 buoy placed in the sea by the CNPC has blocked the sealane of the fishing boats and has seriously affected fishermen’s activities. Since the placement of the buoy, the fishermen have lost a total of about 30 million MMK. They urgently hope that this buoy can be removed, but their pleas are always ignored.
In recent years, the relationship between China and the Myanmar government has grown closer. The two sides have frequent interactions instigated by the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone and the deepwater port project. This has alerted residents to imminent crisis, and they have started to form self-help associations that call on the government to take care of the local people’s rights. The following are the 5 major demands of the local people:
A request to the Myanmar government, prior to the construction of the Kyaukpyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) and Kyaukpyu Deepwater Port: Please do respect the rights of landowners and regulate through transparent laws or institutions. The people of the expropriated land should have corresponding compensation, and if the compensation is monetary, negotiations should be held with the local residents.
A request to the PRC government: Please do guarantee the local people’s right to work before the Kyaukpyu Special Economic Zone begins construction. The plans for local development should be approved by the local people, and the companies that make investments should also obtain the consent of the local people.
Since the construction of oil tanker routes, the job opportunities of fishermen have declined significantly, and their income, food, clothing, housing, and transportation are in jeopardy. Therefore, it is necessary to find new jobs for fishermen before beginning construction of the deepwater port.
While building the SEZ, because the local people did not have the concept of title deeds in the past, in regards to the land passed down by ancestors, including agricultural land, the local residents are only now beginning to buy and sell the land and apply for title deeds. The government should protect the local people through proper regulations.
If the above requirements have not been met, please do not start the construction of SEZ and the deepwater port.
Most of the residents were disappointed and puzzled by the reports and comments made by international media on China’s compensation. The villager told the author that only the political and social elites may benefit from this compensation while the ordinary people as well as the villagers were deprived of their interests and rights. While China is advocating its external propaganda, and praising the great contribution of the BRI projects to the world, the fancy statistics and illusive vision have covered up the negative socio-economic and environmental impacts caused by China to different localities as well as the sufferings of local people. Much attention should be paid to uncover the real situation of such unfair and unjust expansionism of BRI to global localities and reveal the voice of the suffering. – Rappler.com
Ya-chi Lin is an MA Student of Diplomacy, at National Chengchi University, Taiwan. She is also a research assistant as well as a team member of the research project of The Origin, Network and Diffusion of Local Resistance in Southeast Asia: A Typological Analysis in Mainland ASEAN Countries (chaired by Professor Alan Hao Yang). She specializes in China-Myanmar relations.
Alan H. Yang is Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the Graduate Institute of East Asian Studies and the Deputy Director of Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University, Taiwan. He is the principal investigator of the research project The Origin, Network and Diffusion of Local Resistance in Southeast Asia: A Typological Analysis in Mainland ASEAN Countries (sponsored by Taiwan’s Ministry of Science and Technology).