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The Burma Road serves as the gateway between Myanmar and the rising empire on its border. It is the central trade route feeding China’s voracious appetite for the resources — including energy, natural resources and food — it desperately needs to sustain its population of 1 billion people. Here China’s pervasive presence, its sophisticated exertion of soft power, is evident at every turn.

Burma Road Sino-Burmese Pipeline
An engineer and Burmese laborers on the gas and oil pipeline that carves its way from Kunming in China to the Indian Ocean on the coast of Burma. Built and designed by the China National Petroleum Corporation, the pipeline will be 2800 km long once complete. (Gary Knight/VII/GlobalPost)

China building massive energy lifeline through Myanmar

Thousands of workers are building a $2.5 billion pipeline across some of the most challenging terrain in Asia.

HSIPAW, Myanmar — The Sino-Burmese Pipeline is a massive, $2.5 billion project intended to ensure China’s energy security well into the 21st century. It follows the Burma Road up from the Irrawaddy River plain through the Shan Hills and finally, into China.

When completed, the pipeline’s double-barreled conduits will annually deliver 22 million tons of oil and 12 billion cubic meters of gas to destinations within China’s Yunnan Province.

Much of this will be used to alleviate the severe oil shortages that strike the fast-growing Yunnan with increasing regularity. The rest of it will be processed and refined inside the region, then shipped on to other, equally oil-thirsty regions within China.

We came upon the pipeline just outside Mandalay, no more than 20 minutes after leaving the airport. We were somewhat wary as our driver slowly snaked up into the foothills of the Shan Mountains, unsure of what to expect.

The Sino-Burmese Pipeline that carves its way from Kunming in China to the Indian Ocean on the coast of Burma.
(Gary Knight/VII/GlobalPost)

The activist group EarthRights International has documented human rights abuses connected to the construction of the pipeline. Whole villages had reportedly been razed and their occupants forced to toil on the very project depriving them of their homes.

“There are at least 28 Burmese Army battalions stations in the area of the Burma-China pipelines,” the organization noted in a 2010 report.

We hadn’t travelled more than ten kilometers when we came over a shallow rise to see three backhoes cutting a giant gash that ran across the road, down a slight decline, then straight up what seemed to be a vertical rock face. The driver slowed to navigate through the construction, and we told him to pull to the side of the road and stop.

Outside, a handful of Burmese workers eyed us warily. One approached our translator, Zaw Win, and spoke to him in low tones before expelling a long stream of violent red betel juice at his feet.

The workers gathered off to the side of the road. The betel-chewer made a call on his cell phone. Zaw Win turned to us and pointed to our cameras, asking, “Are you going to take pictures?”

Human rights groups and ethnic minorities weren’t the only parties to raise objections to the pipelines, which has been spearheaded by the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), one of world’s largest and most powerful state-owned enterprises, with over $200 billion in annual revenues.

Critics within China itself — some employed by CNPC’s competitor, SinoPec — pointed out that laying 1,700 miles of pipeline across some of the most challenging topography in Asia would require considerable engineering acrobatics.

Now we were bearing witness to this fact. One backhoe was perched partway up the 500-foot rock face.

Just then a minivan came roaring over the rise before slamming on its breaks and skidding slightly in the loose gravel around the construction site. Two men clambered out and came striding toward us. I considered stashing the memory card for my camera in my sock, but realized there wasn’t time.

“You’re professors,” Zaw Win murmured, encouraging my colleague Gary Knight and I to stress the fact that we both teach at universities. It didn’t seem a good time to share that we were also journalists. We turned toward them and did our best to smile and look professorial.

The two figures stopped a few feet from us, then smiled back. “Ni hao” crowed one, a man in his early 30s wearing sunglasses and a hipster t-shirt. He reached out and shook our hands. His companion nodded, then spoke to Zaw Win.

“This,” said Zaw Win, motioning to the hipster, “is Mr. Zhao. He’s the engineering supervisor for this section of the pipeline. The other man is his translator, Myint Aung.”

Mr. Zhao swept his arm out toward the mountain, the gash, and the backhoes. He spoke at some length.

“He wants to know if the Americans could run a pipeline straight up a mountain,” Zaw Win said.

We laughed and told him we weren’t engineers. Mr. Zhao, it turned out, wasn’t terribly concerned about who we were, or why we were interested in