Villagers in Myanmar Describe the Destructive Power of China’s Building Frenzy

Kyaukphyu, Myanmar — President Xi Jinping of China is hosting a conference in Beijing this weekend to showcase one of his biggest gambles: a planned investment in pipelines, ports, trains, roads and other projects to link China to much of the rest of the world, including Europe and Africa.

Called One Belt, One Road, the multibillion-dollar initiative seeks to generate business for China’s state-owned enterprises while promising development and jobs to other countries along the route that are desperate for both.

Other foreign investors and nations, however, would be wise to consider what happened in the area around Kyaukphyu — a poor town of dilapidated wooden houses and deeply rutted roads in desperately poor Rakhine State, on Myanmar’s western coast — before participating in the huge venture. It is a tale of promises not kept, corruption and the trampling of farmers’ rights in the stampede for natural resources and profits.

I heard this story firsthand from five farmers who traveled hours by boat, foot and motorbike from their even smaller and poorer village, Kapaing Chaung, to talk with me about their experiences when the China National Petroleum Corporation and the government of Myanmar, formerly Burma, jointly built an oil and gas pipeline from China across Myanmar to Kyaukphyu, on the Bay of Bengal.

The villagers are members of a local “watch committee” backed by two rights activist groups, the Natural Resource Governance Institute and Paung Ku, to monitor the operation. The committee is a weak but admirable attempt at community action in a country where people are reluctant to complain and nobody cared much about the farmers whose land was vital to the project but who were powerless to defend their interests.

The Chinese destroyed a dam in the village and the mangrove trees that supported it, flooding farmlands with salty water and interfering with a river that provided irrigation. Tuntin, a 50-year-old farmer, told me that farmers who once produced 1,000 bags of rice now produce half that amount. He and his neighbors now find it even harder to feed their families and can no longer afford the tuition for special classes that supplement their children’s insufficient public education, he said.

They have also been forced to scramble for part-time work like carrying rice bags for other farmers and working on fixing roads, said Thaug Mya, a 45-year-old woman with a 10-year-old son, whose farm is completely ruined by salt water and cannot be planted at all.

Committee requests for the dam to be repaired have been kicked back and forth between the minister of Rakhine State and local authorities. The farmers have been similarly stonewalled in trying to get the Chinese and the Myanmar government to pay more than the meager compensation provided when portions of their land were seized. “I am wondering if they are thinking we are helpless people so they can do whatever they decide to do,” said Noyi Lin, the 34-year-old spokesman for the villagers, adding, “I don’t think they have enough humanitarian spirit toward us.”

The experiences of these villagers are not unique, according to a report by the watch committee and their allies. All along the pipeline route, project authorities working with Myanmar’s previous military government confiscated farmers’ land, in whole or in part (even though laws forbid foreigners to own land in Myanmar), and paid a pittance for the property. The farmers were left with no way to earn a living.

The watch committee reported that farmers were not informed in advance about the project, or warned of its consequences. It also documented at least 102 cases of corruption or extortion by the local authorities. Environmental damage was ignored or hidden, and grandiose promises of how the project would benefit depressed communities with nearly 500,000 new jobs proved false.

Years of Chinese involvement in Myanmar, including support for the despised former military dictatorship, has left many Burmese hostile to China even as they acknowledge a dependence on trade with their much larger neighbor.

Mr. Xi has invested enormous political capital in his One Belt, One Road program, which is intended to expand China’s strategic influence as much as anything else. In addition to the pipeline, China plans to build two deepwater ports and a special enterprise zone in the Kyaukphyu area. One would thus expect him to behave with greater compassion for local concerns so as to deflect opposition on the ground, especially since popular opposition has already stalled, if not defeated, China’s plans for a controversial dam in Myanmar. The Japanese, who have also invested in Myanmar, have been far more solicitous and open to complaints.

But most people I spoke to saw little hope that China would modify its behavior as it plowed ahead with the deepwater ports and the enterprise zone, which are expected to require thousands of acres of land. “We have lessons from the pipeline,” Noyi Lin, the villager, told me, “We are the real owners of the land, but they don’t care about us. The compensation they gave us is just a teacup for them.”

Source: The New York Times

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