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Activists across the globe today held coordinated protests against the Chinese-led Shwe Gas project in Burma, which they claim has led to widespread displacement, human rights abuses and environmental degradation.
Protesters in 20 countries rallied outside the embassies of China, Burma, India and South Korea, whose companies are major investors in the project, and handed over letters calling for the suspension of activities pending the resolution of social and environmental concerns.
The highly lucrative venture that begins off the Arakan coast in western Burma has led to the confiscation of thousands of acres of land across the breadth of Burma in order to create a “security corridor” adjacent to the pipeline. The livelihoods of local fishermen in Arakan state’s Kyaukphyu, where a port is being built, have also been destroyed as a direct consequence of the offshore infrastructure developments, say campaigners.
“Militarisation has been heightened along the pipeline corridor, causing internal displacement and sparking new resentment against the Shwe Gas Project and other natural resource exploitation projects like it,” the campaign group Shwe Gas Movement said in an open letter to President Thein Sein.
The project will be Burma’s largest ever gas development, with total revenues expected to reach $US29 billion over 30 years. But activists warn that none of the proceeds will reach local communities.
“Under the current unaccountable structure, gas monies from the project will only feed corruption and not benefit the people,” said Wong Aung from the Shwe Gas Movement.
The group is calling for sustainable natural resource development, which can simultaneously secure the country’s energy needs while respecting the rights of locals through a process of free, prior and informed consent.
“We believe that Burma’s natural resources have the potential to spur the national economy without harming local communities.”
The gas will be extracted from offshore blocs in the Bay of Bengal and exported directly to China, but locals are demanding a 24-hour supply of electricity from the new power source. Seventy-five percent of the Burmese population are still unable to access to the national electricity grid.
Compensation has been given by the government to farmers in northern Shan state whose land was confiscated for the pipeline, but locals in Namkham township have complained that less than half of the $15,900 allotted for each acre of land has so far been awarded.
In September last year, President Thein Sein suspended the development of the controversial Myitsone Dam project, in a move that has been welcomed by campaigners. More recently, the government withdrew plans for a coal-fired power plant in Tavoy after intense pushback from civil society groups.
Sustainable resource development continues to be one of the key challenges for Burma in its transition from a military state to a democratic union. Its vast gas and mineral wealth has the potential to lift the poor nation out of poverty, but remains largely controlled by the military.
Since Thein Sein came into office last year, reports of forced evictions and land grabbing for resource development projects have continued unabated. Critics even suggest these could increase in the wake of ceasefires being signed with ethnic minority rebels in resource rich areas like Karen state, which are being eyed by investors keen to exploit energy reserves.