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Throughout Arakan State's modern history, numerous development projects have been undertaken to support the military and bring in revenue for the regime. No opportunity to participate in, criticize, or oppose these projects has been available to local people, most of whom barely know the meaning of democracy because they have been denied it their entire lives. Despite a raft of sanctions imposed by the developed world, projects such as these have become more common than ever in recent years as the regime has been able to attract investment from its energy-hungry developing neighbours, who have been willing to ignore the government's appalling record on human rights and economic management.
The most typical negative consequences of such development projects include forced labour, land confiscation, forced relocation and increased militarisation. An influx of military personnel to secure project sites, construction materials, and facilities leads directly to an increase in a wide range of abuses, such as unofficial "taxes", violence, extortion, and rape. Furthermore, the lack of military accountability means that all of these crimes can be committed by soldiers with near impunity. The regime also has a reputation for implementing such developments with total disregard for the natural environment and archaeological or cultural sites, many of which are invaluable to Arakanese cultural heritage and identity.
Below is a brief overview of a number of current projects and some of their negative impacts.
• Gas and Oil
Since 1988 the export of gas and oil has become a key source of revenue for Burma's military junta. A 1998 report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) stated that the gas and oil was in fact the country's biggest legitimate earner, surpassed only by its flourishing narcotics trade. By their nature, gas and oil developments require sprawling facilities which occupy a lot of land, and can cause massive problems for citizens even in the world's fairest countries; in Burma, ruled by one of the world's most irresponsible and least accountable governments, the ever-growing oil and gas industry in Arakan State has devastated many people's lives.
• Shwe Gas Project
Natural gas extracted from the massive Shwe gas reserves off the coast of Arakan State is to be piped overland across Burma and into Southern China. In a project backed by firms from South Korea, India and China, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) are building almost 4,000 km of gas and oil pipeline from the Arakan coast, across Burma, to Yunnan in southern China.
The Shwe Gas Project will have a series of devastating effects in areas already stricken with poverty and constant oppression by the military. It will bring in an estimated $30 billion USD for the government over the next 30 years, most of which will be spent further entrenching the government's military stronghold on the country.
Many people have already been forcibly relocated from their homes to make space for the project sites, while others have been subjected to forced labour under slave-like conditions on project sites or military installations for the battalions providing security to the project. Even in the most affected areas very few civilians are informed of the development despite the irrevocable damage it will have on their lives. The few that have learned of these plans and their consequences, and attempted to question or oppose the project have been routinely harassed and imprisoned for speaking out.
Further, significant damage is being done to the natural eco-systems on which villagers depend for their livelihoods, and to cultural and historical sites. As with all development projects in Burma, without a democratic government in place, local people have no say in what happens to their resources, lands, and livelihoods. Military expansion has become a common feature of Burma's political landscape in recent decades; this expansion has been funded with revenue earned by exporting energy from areas in which civilians experience extreme gas and electricity shortages, in total neglect of their needs.
• Oil Developments
The Indian firms Essar and the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) have begun drilling for oil in Arakan State's Ponnagywan and Sitetway townships, on land confiscated without compensation from the locals. Losses of thousands of acres of land have been reported by locals, who were given no warning prior to their evictions. There had also been reports from local sources of villagers being forced to work on the facilities without pay.
Seismic surveying has begun in several other inland and offshore blocks in Arakan, as foreign companies, mostly from China, South Korea, and India explore for still more deposits of gas and oil. Wherever more fossil fuel reserves are found, increased militarization and further abuses will inevitably follow. The AHRDO has begun investigation into these developments and will have more details soon.
• River Developments
In recent years, a number of projects have been planned to exploit Arakan's rivers. These projects will bring in more revenue for the country's ruling military junta while devastating the natural environment, severely damaging local livelihoods and contributing to human rights abuses. Among these projects are the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Facility and the Laymro hydroelectric dam. Between them, these projects have the potential to devastate the lives of millions of civilians who have no power to approve or reject such developments in a country without democracy.
• Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Facility
On April 2nd 2008 the Indian government signed an agreement with the Burmese military junta for the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Facility. The project will connect the eastern Indian seaport of Kolkata with Sitetway (Sittwe) port in Arakan State by sea; it will then link Sitetway to the land-locked region of Mizoram in north-eastern India via river and road transport. The project is divided into three phases, the first and second of which began in November 2010.
Phase 1 – The port at Sitetway will be redeveloped to accommodate larger vessels and an increased shipping volume. This will entail dredging the approach channel and the port area (~562,000 cubic metres of material) to facilitate 6000 ton ships, as well as constructing two jetties and extensive loading and storage facilities that will significantly expand Sitetway's current size and capacity. The larger 219 x 15m port jetty will be capable of handling 20,000 ton ocean freighters, and a 54 x 15m inland waterway terminal (IWT) jetty will cater to the smaller vessels that will use the river. At present, Sitetway's port consists of a 78 x 15m jetty and is appropriate for vessels of 2000-3000 tons.
Phase 2 – Dredging 158 km of the Kaladan River between Sitetway and Paletwa in Chin State. Another IWT terminal will be built at Paletwa for transferring cargo from river to road transport.
Phase 3 – Construction of a 129 km highway between Paletwa and the Mizoram border. Initial surveys and feasibility studies for the road were carried out by Indian authorities, concluding that "large-sized experienced construction firms of repute" would have to be hired to successfully implement the project. However in June 2009 it was decided that the highway construction would "be executed by Myanmar government departmentally".
According to the April 2008 Framework Agreement, the Indian government will bear the estimated $120 million USD cost and administer the project through the state-run Inland Water Authority of India (IWAI). The Government of the Union of Myanmar will provide for free all required land, environmental permission, and security, including security for all personnel and technicians. The project is expected to be complete by December 2013.
All three stages of this development will dramatically alter fragile natural eco-systems in areas where people are totally reliant on them. Along with the Laymro hydroelectric dam, and similar developments on other rivers in Arakan State, these foreign-backed government enterprises will further degrade the already ravaged homelands of the people of Arakan and Chin States. The AHRDO currently has ongoing activities to spread awareness of these river developments.
• Hydropower projects
The Burmese military regime has made plans for four hydropower developments in Arakan State; construction has already begun on three. If expectations are met, an estimated 691 megawatts of electricity will be produced and either exported to neighbouring countries or used by the Burmese military.
The large majority of this power will come from a proposed hydroelectric dam on the Laymro River. The dam will be built by a local company, Shwe Taung Ltd. and is expected to produce approximately 500 MW of power. Negotiations are still incomplete, but the Bangladesh government looks set to sign a deal with Shwe Taung Ltd. for any surplus electricity. Judging from previous projects, it is almost certain that any electricity produced and not exported will be used solely to power military infrastructure and for other projects in the region such as the Shwe Gas Pipeline.
The remaining 191 MW of power will come from three other hydropower developments: Sai Dun (70 MW), Tha Htay Chaung (111 MW) and Ann Chaung (10 MW). All three projects are currently under construction and are expected to be operational within the next few years.
People living or working along the river have been subjected to forced labour, land confiscation, compulsory and uncompensated relocation, torture and rape. If the Hydroelectric projects go ahead, these abuses will continue and become increasingly severe.
• Kyaukphru Deep-Sea Port and Economic Zone
The Burmese government is beginning to implement plans to construct a deep-sea port and economic zone with investment from Chinese corporations at the city of Kyaukphru on Ramree Island, off the coast of Arakan State. Under the agreement with China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), the project will include a large-scale crude oil unloading wharf and terminal at Kyaukphru port, along with oil storage and transportation facilities. On January 7, 2011, CNPC signed an agreement with Qingdao Port (Group) Co. Ltd. to build and operate the oil wharf. The facility will receive oil tankers arriving with Chinese-purchased oil shipments from Africa and the Middle East and will send the oil from the Kyaukphru deep-sea port to China's southern Yunnan Province via the China-Burma oil pipeline, which is currently under construction. China is planning to also construct a major railroad line to link Yunnan Province's capital of Kunming with the deep-sea port and special industrial economic zone. The rail line is expected to be completed in 2015 and will provide China's land-locked southwestern region with a trade outlet to markets in South and Southeast Asia, via Burma's ports.
A disregard for human rights related to Burmese-Chinese managed development projects on Ramree Island has already been documented, and it is expected that implementation of the Kyaukphru port project will be characterized by the same disregard for local stakeholders. During 2004-2005, the Sichuan Petroleum Geophysical Company, a subdivision of CNPC, conducted seismic surveys on Ramree Island as a part of oil exploration efforts on the island. The surveying, also known as test mining, was conducted on the property of landowners without their permission. The survey work left large holes in fields, destroyed crops, and left fields infertile, and no compensation for damage was provided to local farmers. As a result of the military government and project workers' disregard for local residents, in April 2007, frustrated local villagers who could no longer tolerate project-related abuses broke into a drilling site of the China National Offshore Oil Company on the island and destroyed oil-drilling equipment. Unfortunately, this example provides another case of the discontent and negative consequences that irresponsible development projects in Burma hold for both development companies conducting the projects and especially for the local residents affected by them.
• Sitetway - Ann- Minbu (central Burma) Railway
In February 2009, work began on the construction of a new railway line connecting the capital of Arakan State, Sitetway, to Ann, the headquarters of the Burmese military's Western Command, via six townships in Arakan State. Before work began, a large amount of land was unlawfully confiscated from civilians, and more confiscations have occurred since. There have also been many reports of the construction companies involved, most of which are connected with powerful military figures, not paying their workers. So far, the citizens of more than six villages have been forced to relocate, without any assistance or compensation from the authorities.
Construction of railroad in Mrauk-U began on November 7, 2010 and has already resulted in damage to ancient temples and pagodas in Myauk-U, a historic town in Arakan State that was built by the Arakan King Marm Saw Mon in 1404 A.D. Reports by local archaeologists indicate that there has been damage to the ancient city walls of Thabin Thae, Mungala Manaung, and Kyauk, pagodas on Thazuntan Mountain and the Praysoegree Pagoda, moats at Nga Kray AI and Rae Hla, the Prince Dam-Gate, and the Rae Hla and A-myint Taung fortresses. Reports also indicate that local residents were forced by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) to destroy the palace of Arakan King Marm Saw Mon in order to construct a jatropha plantation. Residents have protested the railroad project and appealed to local authorities to stop construction. However, the project has continued without a response from the government.
Improved transportation is highly desired by many locals, since the roads in Arakan State are in such poor condition; therefore, in principle this project could improve their lives. However, with so few opportunities for business in Arakan, and indeed government policies that undermine rather than support markets and individual entrepreneurship, analysts believe that the railway will be used primarily by the military to maintain a stronger hold on the region. It has also been rumoured that proposals have been mooted for the construction of a new airport in Arakan State.
At this stage, information on these developments is limited but AHRDO is conducting an ongoing investigation into the situation and hopes to provide more information soon.
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