By Francis Wade
Construction of the trans-Burma Shwe oil and gas pipelines appears to have resumed after pausing for a month while fighting erupted in sensitive territory close to the China-backed project.
Images and footage obtained by DVB show trucks laden with pipes being transported out of a depot in Jegao, on the Chinese side of the border opposite Muse. Drivers of the trucks told DVB sources the cargo was being delivered to Hsipaw in Shan state, where the pipeline will pass through en route to a refinery in Kunming, China.
In May Hsipaw became the epicentre of fighting between Burmese troops and the Shan State Army, whose northern faction recently ended a 15-year ceasefire with the government. Fighting has since spread north to Kachin state, home to the insurgent Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and there is little sign at present that an end is in sight.
Analysts have speculated that a goal of the Burmese army is to secure areas close to major infrastructural projects such as the Shwe pipeline, and the myriad hydropower projects being built in northern and eastern Burma with Beijing’s backing. Many of these areas, particularly around Hsipaw, and in the Bhamo district of Kachin state, are rebel strongholds.
The wave of fighting triggered a month-long hiatus in building the Shwe project, which China has watched nervously due to the volatility of many areas along its route. Concern mounted during negotiations for the $US30 billion venture, when the Burmese government reportedly rejected a request from Beijing that Chinese security groups guard the pipeline.
Resentment of the project is also high among civilians: a report in March by EarthRights International (ERI) found that from a pool of 100 men and women interviewed clandestinely in Shan state, not a single one was in favour of the development.
It also claimed there had been cases of abuse by troops of civilians close to Kyaukphyu in western Arakan state, where the pipeline will begin. Land confiscation and forced labour along its trajectory have also been widely reported.
China has maintained an ambiguous stance surrounding the fighting in northern Burma, with numbers of Kachin civilians known to have crossed into Yunnan province to flee the violence. Reports have circulated that Yunnan officials warned households along the border not to shelter refugees.
The first wave of offensives against the KIA began shortly after high-level Burmese government and military officials paid a visit to Beijing, sparking rumours that China had urged the Burmese army to attack in order to stem the movement of insurgent groups close to its energy projects. This however has not been verified.
China is desperate for the passage through Burma that the Shwe pipelines provide, given its traditional route for oil cargos from Africa and the Middle East runs through the Straits of Malacca, a congested strip of water beneath Singapore that it heavily patrolled by US warships.