At least three people were detained and questioned by local authorities in Arakan state on Friday, for their role in staging an unauthorised protest against the Chinese-backed Shwe Gas Pipeline in western Burma earlier this week.
On Thursday, over 400 locals in Arakan state’s Kyaukpyu township rallied against the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) – a major shareholder in the Shwe Gas Pipeline – demanding that the company take responsibility for the damages caused to their livelihoods and local environment.
According to one of the organisers, they had sought permission to protest three times before, but after being repeatedly refused they decided to go ahead with the rally anyway.
“The arrests have begun – the [police] are looking for [organisers] in Kyauktan, Ywarma and Pandeinse villages,” said Htun Kyi, adding that three people had already been interrogated and asked to seek bail guarantors.
The police reportedly took their personal details and pressed them on who helped them organise the protest and how they got the money to print out t-shirts and other campaign material.
“My family just informed me that police officials also showed up at my house and asked them to tell me to go to the police station when I get back and also to bring guarantors along,” said Htun Kyi, who was in Kyaukpyu as of this morning. “We are prepared – we are ready to accept any punishment.”
Hundreds of locals, wearing white t-shirts with red crosses over CNPC logos, gathered near the Chinese company’s office on Madaykyun island on Thursday and shouted out slogans against the controversial pipeline.
According to Htun Kyi, who is also a spokesperson of the Rakhine Social Network, said that local authorities had previously promised to help them negotiate with the company over their demands, but later done nothing.
Protestors are calling for compensation for confiscated land, new job opportunities, local infrastructure, including better roads, as well as a fair share of the electricity that will be generated from the project.
The protest was joined by hundreds of local residents, including fishermen who have lost their jobs because of the pipeline, as well as a number of civil society organisations.
The controversial Shwe Gas Pipeline, which is scheduled for completion in May, is a joint venture between the state-owned Chinese company and the military-owned Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), as well as three other foreign firms.
The pipeline will connect western Burma’s Arakan state and China’s Yunnan province, slicing through many ethnic minority territories, including the conflict-torn Shan and Kachin states. Human rights groups have complained that the project has led to mass confiscations of local farmlands, forced labour, human rights abuses and increased militarisation across the country.
Earlier this month, a group of activists warned that the 800-kilometre pipeline is likely to fuel conflict in northern Shan state, where clashes between ethnic rebels and the Burmese army are ongoing.
“Running an over-ground gas pipeline in a location where an armed conflict taking place is absolutely unadvisable,” said Michael Oxlade, a consultant with Westminster International, a UK based firm that specialises in providing security services for global oil operations.
The Burmese government is estimated to earn USD$29 billion over the next 30 years from the dual pipeline, which will pump gas from the Bay of Bengal and oil from the Middle East to mainland China.