James Fable heads for Rakhine State’s second largest city, Kyaukphyu, where business interests bring a mixture of financial hope and risk to the local eco-system. Photos by the writer.
Although the Rakhine coastline is endowed with countless pristine beaches, diverse flora and rare fauna, tourism makes up for but a small portion of the region’s revenue. The main bulk comes from extractive sector initiatives—mostly backed by China or India, who wish to capitalise on Rakhine State’s geostrategic location. While the economic benefits are substantial, some fear the oil and natural gas projects will harm unique Rakhine ecosystems and impede the emerging tourism industry, a potential source of income for local communities.
Leaving Sittwe after just one day was one of the better travelling decisions I’ve made. The Rakhine State capital was not an elegant port city steeped in colonial history, as guidebooks would have you believe, but a fetid prison hemmed in on the western side by the Bay of Bengal and on the other by Tatmadaw bases. The stares were unwelcoming and suspicious, probably a result of the recent unrest, and the atmosphere eerie.
So early the next morning I hopped on a boat for Kyaukphyu, the second largest city in Rakhine. As the sun rose, the helmsmen ushered me to the prow. Flanked by fecund fields and gliding egrets, watching fishermen cast their nets into the wine-dark sea, we rode into rosy-fingered dawn. As port approached, islands loomed out of forgotten gloom, transforming the strait into a mini archipelago.
Ramree Island, on whose northern tip sits Kyaukphyu, was captured by the Imperial Japanese Army in 1942, but the Allies launched an offensive three years later and reclaimed it, compelling nearly 1,000 Japanese soldiers to flee into the mangrove swamps. That night, British soldier and naturalist Bruce Stanley Wright heard “scattered rifle shots in the pitch black swamp punctured by the screams of wounded men crushed in the jaws of reptiles.” He wrote only 20 Japanese returned alive, but historians and zoologists have dismissed the crocodilian massacre as a sensationalist urban myth. Still, it’s a good story—even the Guinness Book of World Records snapped it up. The saltwater crocodiles of Ramree Island have since been hunted to near extinction; a local told me any stragglers found are shipped to Yangon zoo. He may not be a reliable source, but he wasn’t joking.
As I disembarked, Soe Moe, a chubby chap who had taken a liking to me on board, promised to show me a good guesthouse. So we squeezed on a trishaw and rode slowly though the quiet, palm-fringed streets. In contrast to Sittwe, everyone in Kyaukphyu was unbelievably friendly. I was regularly invited for food or drinks, and banned from paying a dime—so I donated to a local state school to keep Karma flowing. Soe Moe was one of the good guys, and Yadanabon Motel turned out to be superb value: a clean, spacious en-suite with air-con and hot water set me back just 17,000 kyats.
At sunset, I hitched a ride to the western beach, where people gather every evening to play football using driftwood goalposts, drink beer and chat. I was the only tourist, but a drive down the coast revealed resort construction projects underway—entrepreneurs seeking to turn shwe beaches and fairy tale bays into hard cash. They will likely cater to the Chinese businessmen working on the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ), a deep sea port project that China is set to take a 70 percent stake in. There are already parallel pipelines transporting vast quantities of oil and natural gas from Kyaukphyu to Yunnan Province, China. The oil pipeline in particular was accused of harming the natural environs and was marred with human rights abuses—will the SEZ prove one project too far?
“The [oil] pipeline is good,” a Kyaukphyu local told me. “It provides Kyaukphyu with cheap electricity. But I worry it will pollute the sea.”
He isn’t the only one pleased but concerned. For many Kyaukphyu residents, the SEZ presents a dilemma: the potential for greater financial stability, but with a risk of harming the island’s coastlines and emerging tourism industry.
It’s a similar story in Kyientali, a small town roughly 60 kilometers north of Gwa. The area is home to whale sharks and rare species of mangrove trees; sea turtles nest on a nearby beach. A large Chevron oil rig will soon join them.
The Rakhine Coastal Region Conservation Association (RCA), a grassroots organisation founded in 2007, work with Rakhine communities to protect local ecosystems. Currently the group is implementing a project with the Wildlife Conservation Society and the British Council’s Pyoe Pin program to protect marine fisheries by establishing a co-management zone in the Kyeintali inshore area. With illegal logging, dynamite fishing and poaching already filling their plates, they don’t need pollution piled on top.
“We fear the noise from the oil rig will interfere with whale calls,” said Dr Maung Maung Kyi, the RCA chairman, as we strolled through his tranquil conservation garden. “Chevron assured us they would monitor the noise pollution and try to reduce it. We will see.”