Fierce sun blazed above the bridge carrying the oil and gas pipeline across Mytinge River near the village of Kywenapha. The construction site of the China-Myanmar oil and gas pipeline, lying to the southeast of Myanmar's second biggest city Mandalay, is quiet in the 35 degree heat.
The bridge was finished last August after eight months of building. Some round-off efforts still need to be done, but since the rainy season started in late June, all work has been suspended.
"It is closed," an old local told the Global Times. His home, a shabby wooden hut, lies near the entrance to the site. He sold drinks and groceries to the Myanmarese workers during the construction. But now, he and his two adult sons lie in bamboo beds with little to do to pass the time.
"Heavy rains can come suddenly during the rainy season and will last for a few days. We have suspended most of the projects out of security concerns," a representative of the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) told the Global Times. He warned our reporters to watch their step, since the pipeline passes through plains, mountains and swamps while snakes are also an ever-present danger. However, the politics of the project may be just as tricky to deal with as the serpents.
The China-Myanmar oil and gas pipeline, to be completed in 2013, was formally started on June 3, 2010 after Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Myanmar President U Thein Sein jointly presided over an opening ceremony in Nay Pyi Taw. At the time, experts were optimistic that the project would be finished on time.
With a total investment of 30 billion yuan ($4.7 billion), the pipeline could deliver 23 million tons of oil and 12 billion cubic meters of natural gas every year to China.
On February 27, when Myanmar Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo visited the project on Maday Island, of the beginning of the oil pipeline, he emphasized it could benefit both countries' populations.
A senior official at CNPC, Zhang, told the Global Times that "after its completion, the project will become one of the biggest sources of revenue for Myanmar." He added that as Myanmar is a country rich in oil and natural gas, China is the perfect market to commercialize those resources.
Zhang said that "Myanmarese people of insight understand that exporting oil and natural gas to accumulate capital for national development is beneficial. Using international investment and local resources to realize commercialization of natural gas could help the country develop and improve livelihoods."
However, the pipeline has been dogged with controversy from the start, caught between geopolitics and local concerns.
According to a land rights report in 2008, 18 towns in Myanmar would be affected by the pipeline project.
In March, approximately 100 Myanmarese demonstrated at the Myanmar embassy in Thailand, demanding construction on the pipeline be suspended. The Thai-based Shwe Gas Movement pointed at the social, economic and environmental impacts of the projects and its non-transparency.
Zhang claimed that the organizations were former exile groups who have been opposing the Myanmar government and its partners for many years. He dismissed them as not representing the mainstream views of the public in Myanmar and simply wanting to stir up negative public opinion.
Win Myo Thu, one of Myanmar's most outspoken environmentalists, told the Global Times that activists "want to use anti-Chinese sentiments, because they want to politicize this issue and spread hate for the military government. So they use this issue against the government. That's why we have to control them."
But Thu also suggested that the CNPC should consider the social and environmental risks and pay attention to the concerns of the local people. "In the past, all the Chinese projects in Myanmar were based on diplomacy with the government, but at the same time, we have a lot of tensions between the people and the government. They should not only talk with one side," the environmentalist commented.
According to the CNPC, the giant made total donations of $6 million to help the locals improve education and healthcare standards in 2011. It was also agreed by all the shareholders of the oil and gas joint venture that a donation of $2 million be made yearly to further help develop villages along the pipeline.
Kyaukpyu, located along the country's western shore, is the starting point for the gas pipeline. Around the town, people depend on diesel-powered electricity generators to supply six hours of power a day but fees for the electricity can rapidly skyrocket. The CNPC donated $10 million, working with the government to build an electric transmission line for the locals to get hydropower generation.
Forging media contacts
When constructing the pipeline, the Chinese enterprise started a major PR campaign to show off its corporate social responsibility actions and involvement with local charities. However, this largely fell on deaf ears among the Myanmarese press.
The reaction to the construction of the pipeline has been through rapid changes in the Myanmar public opinion. Despite strict censorship, private media in Myanmar have been expanding of late. Currently, there are over 30 privately-owned weekly and relatively influential newspapers and magazines across the country.
Zaw Myint, editor of the Myanmar Times, told the Global Times that media censorship in Myanmar is beginning to ease up. He added that the government is decreasing its control over media and creating more room for the development of private media development, although sensitive topics concerning politics and religion still undergo strict censorship. Private media are becoming increasingly popular with the Myanmarese public as they are considered people-oriented, critical and democratic.
The suspension of the Myitsone hydropower project last September, a project that saw heavy involvement from China Power Investment, highlights the importance of public relations in Myanmar, in which private media play an influential role in fostering and promoting public opinion.
A senior Chinese reporter based in Yangon told the Global Times that he had spoken with many reporters involved in the Myitsone outcry after the project was suspended. Many agreed that if both the Chinese enterprise and the Myanmar government had not kept the public in the dark and had been more transparent, the project could likely have avoided being suspended.
There have been other controversies around the Myanmar-pipeline. The Myanmarese media has given heavy coverage to NGO reports criticizing violations of land rights to build the pipeline.
Zhang admitted that the CNPC had not communicated well with local media in the past. "Many media didn't know the accurate and concrete details of land compensation policies. They just hyped up news based on unreliable sources or presented reports from the single perspective of those who were complaining."
Some changes are beginning to happen on the ground. On June 27, a press conference was held in Yangon by the Friendship Association for the Myanmar-China Pipeline, to illustrate the stance of the CNPC on land acquisition and compensation during the entire construction process and beyond. A few days ago, CNPC also organized a trip for reporters to visit the project on Maday Island. The CNPC was keen to show a reservoir they had built free of charge for local residents, accompanied by an 8-kilometer-long water supply line.
Myint told the Global Times that this contact helped them better understand the perspective of the Chinese company, a change they welcomed since they strive to be neutral in their reports. Previously, the Myanmar Times had reported on a land dispute case related to the pipeline, and published the article without receiving a response from the CNPC by the deadline. They cleared the misunderstandings in the report after the CNPC talked to them.
But it seems more work still needs to be done. Nay Min Knant, news editor of the Unity Weekly News Journal, a new publication only registered three months ago, told the Global Times that their reporter was shut out of the press conference as they didn't have an invitation letter.
The China-Myanmar oil and gas pipeline could reduce China's dependence on the Malacca Straits for oil transportation. However, some are not so optimistic.
The commercial environment in Myanmar remains uncertain. It has suspended some major projects over the past year, including a heat-engine plant invested by Thailand, the Myitsone project by China and another power plant which had Indian backing. Some of these suspensions were due to mounting public opinion pressure.
A Myanmar strategy analyst in Yangon told the Global Times that if the armed conflicts between the government and the Kachin Independent Army continue and the project is not fully supported and hailed by the government and the local people, then it will not be secure.
Zhang admitted the project has been affected by domestic armed conflicts in the country. "We are expecting the conflicts to be settled as soon as possible, and a peaceful environment to be restored that will benefit all sides," he said.
"Myanmar is becoming more open, this is a good thing, just like China's reform and opening-up in 1978. For Chinese enterprises, if Myanmar becomes a country with a sound legal system, it will better safeguard our interests," Zhang added.