Kyi Kyi Hnin sits beneath a fan on a bright morning in her village along the coast of Kyaukphyu, a township in Myanmar’s Rakhine State on the edge of the Indian Ocean.
“The government just signs laws, but they are committing violations,” she says. “The government should consider the communities’ desires and interests.”
Kyi Kyi Hnin is a local community organizer and her speech is quick and resolute: She knows the challenges facing Kyaukphyu and spends her days working to support local residents.
Kyaukphyu is home to a cluster of busy fishing towns and villages. But in the past few years, the township has been thrown into the center of geopolitics, armed conflict and, more recently, Myanmar’s struggle against COVID-19.
For months, the country recorded relatively few cases of the virus, until a new outbreak began in August with Rakhine at the epicenter. After the state capital, Sittwe, Kyaukphyu has recorded the most cases of any township in Rakhine for much of the outbreak.
Since 2018, Rakhine has seen increasingly violent conflict between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army, with over 230,000 people displaced and hundreds killed. Though Kyaukphyu has largely escaped the brunt of the conflict, the military has become increasingly present in recent months.
Just 15 kilometers southeast of Kyi Kyi Hnin’s village, around 150 people were detained by the Myanmar military at a local school in the village of Zai Chaung. The military alleged that civilians played a role in helping the Arakan Army, a prominent ethnic armed group, to capture two soldiers from a nearby naval base.
“Some people from the army went into [Zai Chaung] and the villagers asked them to follow the COVID-19 guidelines,” said one Kyaukphyu activist who asked to remain anonymous. “At that time, the guards of the village tried to ask the military to follow these restrictions but they refused.”
When the soldiers began to detain civilians, those who could fled to the town of Kyaukphyu; many took shelter in local monasteries. One 50-year-old woman was shot by the military and rushed to a hospital. Some civilians were beaten and interrogated by infantry soldiers, according to a local village administrator.
In the end, the residents of Zai Chaung were kept in their local schoolhouse for 12 days in early November, despite the risks of the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak in Rakhine.
Since the mid-2000s, tensions in Kyaukphyu have also risen with the arrival of large-scale infrastructure, including oil and gas pipelines as well as the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) and deep-sea port — a multi-billion dollar project that will form a key link in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). On the Bay of Bengal, the township is slated to become the terminus of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, the portion of the BRI that will link China to the Indian Ocean.
But some residents in Kyaukphyu say the government, the military, and project developers are now pushing their plans ahead without the public’s consent. The construction threatens the livelihoods and homes of around 20,000 people, according to the International Commission of Jurists. Most people in Kyaukphyu work as farmers, depending heavily on their land.
The Kyaukphyu SEZ and deep-sea port are backed by Chinese state-owned conglomerate CITIC and the Myanmar government. The projects will cover 4,300 acres and include an industrial zone for garments, electronics, construction materials, food, pharmaceuticals, and other goods. The SEZ also depends on new infrastructure like roads and power plants.
Tun Kyi, a longtime community advocate and program coordinator of the Kyaukphyu Rural Development Association, says the process of acquiring land for the projects has become convoluted and poorly regulated.
“The central government doesn’t know what is happening on the ground. For example, the government officers and local business people are selling mangrove forests without informing the community — and selling [a] mangrove forest is illegal,” said Tun Kyi. “If the community loses the mangrove forest, it means that the community loses their livelihoods, and it’s not good for the climate.”
In recent years, many Kyaukphyu residents say developers paid them only a fraction of the value of their land. Residents often don’t have the titles that the government requires for compensation because much of the land in Kyaukphyu is managed through customary communal land tenure. Reports by project developers claim around 70 percent of land in Kyaukphyu is “scrubland” — an assessment that local residents contest.
“The information is not clear and not open,” said Soe Shwe, a member of the steering committee for local network Kyaukphyu SEZ Watch. “We heard that some land areas already belong to MEHL [military-owned firm Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd] and the military leaders and Chinese companies still want to implement the project in the SEZ. The government wants to announce the land acquisition but it is not yet formal.”
Fishermen also say they already can’t access much of their fishing grounds, with the rest under threat from the port and tanker traffic.
“They must consult with the communities in advance before the project starts,” said Kyi Kyi Hnin. “They must work directly with the community and get permission — without getting permission from the community, the project will be a failure and also violate the communities’ rights.”
For all the projects in the area, environmental assessments are required to include public consultations, but local advocates say this hasn’t happened. The assessment for the SEZ and port is now underway, according to the developers.
In Kyi Kyi Hnin’s village, local activists have organized in opposition to a new gas-fired power plant that will supply the SEZ. The 135 MW plant will cost $180 million and is being developed by Chinese state-owned company Power China and Myanmar’s Supreme Group. The project’s environmental impact assessment has already been published and concludes that the plant is “vital to the livelihood of the people.”
“The projects aren’t for the communities,” Kyi Kyi Hnin said. “The government and the investors say they are, but they aren’t. There is already an existing power plant, but some villagers still don’t have power.”
Activists claim COVID-19 and the military presence due to the civil war make fair consultations nearly impossible.
“The power plant construction is already going on even under the situation with COVID-19. There is no delay of the construction,” said Soe Shwe.
As the conflict with the Arakan Army has worsened, many Kyaukphyu residents now say the Myanmar military is facilitating the development projects in the area. They allege that the Myanmar and Chinese governments, as well as project developers, are using the conflict as a pretext to advance their plans.
“People in Rakhine are facing a civil war,” said Tun Kyi. “While the peace process in Myanmar is delayed and people are struggling with conflicts, mega-project investments should not continue. These mega-projects can lead to more conflicts, such as land and other issues.”
“For the impacts, most of the people are concerned more about the conflict, not the project,” said Soe Shwe. “We have little access to speak with villagers as in the past.”
In March of this year, the Myanmar government officially designated the Arakan Army a terrorist organization under the country’s counterterror law, meaning anyone, from journalists to Rakhine civilians, can face arrest for contacting the group.
Since then, the military has arrested civilians across the state over allegations that they have ties to the Arakan Army, including dozens in Kyaukphyu.
“The men are in hiding as the military will arrest them,” said Kyi Kyi Hnin. “They’ve had to run away. There is also little protection for the rights of women and children because of the war.”
The military has also imposed travel restrictions on Kyaukphyu, making it difficult for anyone to enter the area from outside or for community members to discuss the issues they face.
“If the project implementation starts, it is very difficult for us to speak out against the project because we cannot organize the people,” said one activist. “We cannot discuss it with people.”
Fishermen have also struggled to get by under new restrictions imposed by the increasing military presence.
Some residents of Kyaukphyu are optimistic about the SEZ and port, voicing hopes that the investment will create job opportunities for young people in the township. Proponents include owners of construction companies and other businesses.
The project’s developers say the port and industrial park will add $10 billion to Myanmar’s GDP and create 100,000 jobs in the area. According to Myanmar’s 2014 census, Kyaukphyu’s working population is around 105,000.
Before the planning of the SEZ and port, Kyaukphyu had already seen major local opposition to the building of the Southeast Asia Oil and Gas Pipeline, which runs over 750 kilometers from the Maday Island petrol port to Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan province.
The link to Kyaukphyu is vital for Beijing’s BRI as it allows China to quickly bring oil and gas — and someday goods and resources — into the country overland, skipping the circuitous journey through the Straits of Malacca. The pipelines are owned by China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), both large state-owned companies.
Construction began under Myanmar’s waning military dictatorship in the late 2000s but drew widespread objections among residents along the pipeline route over its social and environmental impacts. In Kyaukphyu, the developers leveled hills and residents say they took their land without adequate compensation.
Left with little chance to negotiate, villagers organized peaceful protests, but the leaders were arrested and jailed. Construction went ahead and the pipelines and terminals were finished.
Since then, the pipelines have prompted controversy over possible spills. Residents have called for investigations as recently as August, claiming local waters are polluted and fish catches are down by 70 percent.
Today, the residents of Kyaukphyu see similar challenges.
“The Chinese developers now work on the ground without respecting the community,” said one local activist, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal. “The Chinese investors, and maybe the government as well, need to respect that the community is still here.”
As for the conflict, a recent ceasefire between the AA and the military in the wake of the country’s general election offers the hope of progress. Residents of villages in Kyaukphyu, including Zai Chaung, have returned home.
Myanmar’s second wave of COVID-19 has largely shifted to Yangon, though Rakhine continues to record more cases and deaths than many regions and over 2,000 people remain in quarantine. Without a vaccine and a stable peace agreement, Kyaukphyu residents face an uncertain future as a key stop on China’s Belt and Road.
Gene Ryack is a writer and researcher working on environmental and development issues in Southeast Asia.