Yangon Until you are on the ground, you don’t fully realize how big Myanmar is. The city sprawls out, but is teeming with people, buses filled to the gills, sidewalks India-like with people, cars, street sellers, and hawkers with tea shops on small plastic stools serving whatever, whenever, and wherever they can fit in. Thinking about the country, the fact that Burma is the size of Texas catches you by surprise at first. That’s big, and given the fact that 60% of the population lives in rural areas, it’s spread out.
The size speaks to how the country survived economically behind a closed curtain of sorts for so many years. The country is teaming with natural resources, especially in the extractive industries of hard rock, oil, and gas. In fact for all the questions we asked one group of people after another, those very extractive riches have fueled the political economy of the country under the military and given that so much of this wealth is in the ethnic states, the tension between the government, developmental pressure including land seizures, and the ethnic populations is also at the heart of the civil wars that have raged inside the country and have finally led to numerous ceasefires and an extensive peace process.
Nowhere is this any clearer than when talking to the staff and researchers of the Shwe Gas Movement and thumbing through their reports as we listened to an update of what they had told us in brief in Mae Sot, Thailand four years ago. The pipeline is moving gas from the Bengal Sea across all of Burma to Hunan Province in China. This is not a Keystone project. This is a done deal that has been built and is in operation now. The environmental controls and protections were minimal and those are part of the changes being demanded in the constitution by the movement. Labor exploitation and land acquisition with suspect permissions and inadequate compensation were the norms. The pipeline was constructed by China’s National Petroleum Corporation after Korea’s Daewoo International found large gas deposits offshore in 2004. The Norwegian Pension Board has been a major investor in the operation.
This is a mess but it did not have to be and it brings many economic and political issues to center stage. As one Shwe Gas Movement report, “Drawing the Line” says, there is an “estimated revenue of US $900 million for each of the pipelines…generating $1.8 billion per year…for a total of $54 billion over 30 years of operation.” There is also a 16% value added tax on the crude oil, all of which has the potential to transform the economy of Burma into a “thriving nation with a much higher living standard.”
In some ways that’s the fight. How to get some of these riches past the military with its 400,000 member standing army and no known foreign enemies and the 20 or so families of crony capitalists who rake off hundreds of millions. The United States has for years blocked any of these families from entering, including allowing their children to attend US-based universities, but they are still not well known in Myanmar nor is the world as knowledgeable and outraged as needed. One of our delegation, Joie Warnock from Unifor in Canada, correctly said that we need a “crony watch,” and she’s right! There are lots of reasons the military has kept a tight grip and dark shadows over the country, and the potential riches and the constant rip-offs are part of it. Hopefully, now that the veil is lifted, it can never be pulled down again.