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What stigma? Burma (Myanmar) draws energy-hungry neighbors

Activists who pressured Western companies to boycott Burma (Myanmar) are now preparing to battle Asian firms eager for Burma’s oil and gas.

By a correspondent / July 2, 2010

Rangoon, the capital of Burma(Myanmar), where the population cope with unpredictable and lengthy power cuts. Activists are ready to fight with Asian companies for Burma's oil and gas.

Sarah Birke


Kungyangon, Burma

Six months ago, a construction crew showed up in this sleepy Burmese backwater. Villagers watched the crew put down a black pipeline under their rice fields, on its way north to power-hungry Rangoon (Yangon), the old capital.

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The pipeline opened June 12 to acclaim in Burma’s largest city, where households are lucky to get six hours of electricity a day. For villagers living on the pipeline route, the benefits are less clear. At a local store, the only power comes from an old car battery hooked up to a single bulb. Nobody has electricity at home. “The gas is not for us,” says a farmer.

But the villagers were lucky in one respect: Nobody had to move off their land to make way for the pipeline.

Elsewhere in military-ruled Burma (Myanmar), authorities have seized land for energy projects that are increasingly attractive to Asian oil companies unhindered by recent Western sanctions. When the wells are turned on and the energy is exported to richer countries, local communities are often left landless and in the dark.

The pipeline to Rangoon will give more Burmese citizens access to a gas field operated by France-based Total and US-based Chevron that, since 1998, had already been supplying 30 percent of Thailand’s electricity supply via a separate pipeline. Not only has the bulk of gas been exported, but Total and Chevron have been dogged by allegations of human rights abuses over the pipeline's $1.3 billion construction. In 2005, the companies paid out-of-court settlements to plaintiffs in separate lawsuits alleging complicity in the abuses.

But that project pales in comparison to a new Asian-backed pipeline project that is much bigger and potentially more disruptive than any predecessor, according to US- and Thailand-based activists.

Chinese, South Korean, and Indian energy companies are investing in a gas terminal and an oil tanker dock at the Shwe Gas field in western Arakan state, from where two pipelines will be built to transport Burmese natural gas and imported crude oil to southern China. Construction began in late 2009 and is expected to complete in 2013.

About 100 families have already lost their land to developers, who have paid them little or no compensation, says Wong Aung, a coordinator for the Shwe Gas Movement in Thailand, which opposes the project. Instead they are left to search for vacant land nearby where they can resettle. Many more living inland on the pipeline route face the risk of land confiscation and forced labor by security forces, Wong Aung warns.

"We’d like the companies to suspend the project until we have a democratically elected government in Burma where people can genuinely participate,” he says.

A highly prized pipeline

The Shwe Gas field is close to the border with Bangladesh and is operated by South Korean Daewoo International. The discovery in 2004 of large offshore reserves attracted India’s government, which proposed its own pipeline via Bangladesh. This plan bogged down over concerns by Indian officials that Bangladesh wasn’t a secure route, says Marie Lall, an associate fellow at Chatham House in London who has studied the project.