The soft-spoken university history tutor, jailed during the failed 1988 uprising, wants the government to stop the 790km pipeline project that will cut across the country, including near his town in the old British hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin.
Human rights groups say the pipelines will displace thousands, damage livelihoods of farmers and fishermen, and benefit China more than Myanmar, where power outages are chronic.
To Beijing, the pipelines are a vital energy security asset that will reduce its reliance on shipping through the narrow choke-point of the Malacca Strait. Thousands of Chinese workers have been enlisted to build them.
“We want parliament to stop the pipeline. It was not given permission by the people,” Kyaw Thiha said in an interview.
A year ago, such talk was dangerous in a country whose critics were regularly locked up by generals who had ruled since a 1962 coup. However, reforms led by a year-old nominally civilian government have begun to unwind years of authoritarianism and self-imposed isolation.
The government has relaxed some media censorship, allowed trade unions, begun peace talks with ethnic rebels, freed hundreds of dissidents and showed signs of pulling back from the powerful economic and political orbit of China. It was rewarded in December when US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made the first visit to the country by a US secretary of state since 1955.
Burmese Energy Minister Than Htay acknowledged public concerns over the pipelines, but said they would be completed on schedule next year.
“We solved each and every problem along that pipeline route, and we give compensation for land use much more than previously,” he said in a recent interview. “I consider all the potential issues that will be raised by the anti-government groups. I see every day on the Internet many groups raise the problems and the issues to disturb our project.”
For many in Myanmar, the pipelines embody all that is rotten about China’s influence: environmental destruction, land grabs, cronyism and accusations of corruption.
Thant Lwin is one of many farmers who simmer with resentment when asked about them. Chinese bulldozers have sliced his rice-paddy field in half to make way for the pipeline and service road in his small village.
“We are facing real hardship because of the Chinese,” he said from his farm in the countryside near Pyin Oo Lwin, known in colonial times as Maymyo.
“I would be extremely happy if the pipeline gets canceled, but I don’t think that will happen,” he said. “It is not a matter of hating China. I can only accept the situation. I have no power. Most people are scared to talk out against the project as it is a government project.”
Venerable Candobhasa, a Buddhist monk whose land was bisected by one pipeline outside of Pyin Oo Lwin, scoffed at claims that the project, led by China National Petroleum Corp, parent of PetroChina Co Ltd, would bring much-needed money and development to affected villages.
“These are our natural resources. We should keep it for ourselves to help us develop, not sell it to China. We don’t have enough power,” he said, sitting cross-legged on a sparse floor in his monastery. “The government does not share the money from the pipeline with us. We want to know where it has gone.”