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China’s image problem in Myanmar

Jane Perlez and
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The pipelines are finished. The oil storage tanks gleam in the tropical sun. The deep-sea port set in jade-coloured waters awaits the first ships bearing crude from West Asia.

China’s ambition of transporting energy through the Indian Ocean and across the mountains of Myanmar seems close to fulfilment. Natural gas is scheduled to start flowing in July from wells deep in the Bay of Bengal through a 500-mile pipeline. Oil will run in a parallel pipe at the end of the year.

But for China, the cost of the pipelines has been far greater than the several billion dollars that the China National Petroleum Corp., China’s energy giant, has spent on construction. With its projects challenged more than ever by activists energised by Myanmar’s democratic opening, China has been trying to repair its tarnished reputation among residents here, and in the country at large.

Farmers and fishermen in this remote coastal region are winning some concessions. In central Myanmar, monks have joined with ancestral landholders to stop a Chinese-led conglomerate from levelling a fabled mountain embedded with copper.

And last week, in a new ominous sign for the Chinese, guerrillas of the Shan State Army attacked a compound belonging to the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, a partner with the Chinese oil company, not far from the pipeline and close to China’s border.

In response to the broad opposition, Beijing has ordered secretive state-owned Chinese companies to do something they have rarely done before: publicly embrace Western-style corporate social responsibility practices and act humbly toward the people who live near their vaunted projects.

The grass-roots protests against Chinese projects disturb Beijing because they come amid a scramble for influence in Myanmar between China and the United States.

Official visits give a glimpse of the diplomatic jockeying. President Thein Sein of Myanmar, who heads the quasi-civilian government, will visit the White House on Monday in what will be the first encounter in Washington between an American president and a leader of the country formerly known as Burma, since 1966.

“It is in China’s self interest to think about the impact of their investments,” said Thant Myint-U, a Myanmar historian and author of Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia . “In the long term, it is difficult to see a Myanmar where China is not important. But there is a chance that China will no longer be the dominant actor in Myanmar, and that is worrying for some people in China.”That concern has prompted Chinese officials, worried about losing Myanmar to the Americans, to push back. When a veteran Chinese diplomat, Wang Yingfan, was appointed several months ago as special envoy to Myanmar, he immediately flew there and spoke about the social obligations of Chinese state-run corporations.

And Gao Mingbo, the head of the political section at the Chinese Embassy in Yangon, said: “The companies must retain the support of the local communities. That has been the consistent message of the embassy: to be open, to be engaged”

He created the embassy’s Facebook page; although Facebook is blocked in China, it is a tool that Chinese officials in Yangon are using to reach citizens.

“If you don’t walk the walk and just talk the talk, you won’t win the hearts and minds of the local people,” Mr. Gao said.

Whether China’s outreach efforts will quell anti-China protests is an open question.

After years in exile in Thailand, the leadership of activist organisations like the Shwe Gas Movement has now regrouped at home, its ground forces well trained in tactics of persuasion and protest. The group has pledged to continue to press for higher compensation for land taken for the pipelines, and to push for better-paying jobs along the pipelines’ route. Hundreds of miles east of the pipeline, the Wanbao Mining Corp., a subsidiary of China’s state-owned arms maker, Norinco, is collaborating with Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. to build a vast new pit for the mining of copper, a project that calls for the acquisition of the lands of 26 villages at the base of Letpadaung mountain.

After violent protests against the mine last November, during which human rights groups say the police used white phosphorous smoke grenades, the government established an inquiry led by Ms. Suu Kyi.

To the relief of Wanbao, the inquiry ruled that the company could continue to expand, and Ms. Suu Kyi, anxious not to alienate China, urged the farmers to cooperate with the project.

Her inquiry ordered the company to pay market prices for farmers’ land, and compensation for three years of crops. The report said that the company must conduct an environmental impact study but mentioned nothing about enforcing the results. — New York Times News Service

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