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China and the U.S. complete for influence in Asia. And one place where that's especially true these days is Myanmar, the country also known as Burma. Myanmar used to be ruled by a military junta. It was isolated from the West and heavily reliant on Beijing. Well, now, under a reformist president, Myanmar is reaching out, and President Obama made a special visit there last year. Still, balancing entrenched Chinese interests while establishing a new democracy isn't easy as NPR's Anthony Kuhn found out when he went to Yangon.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: A joint Chinese and Burmese work crew is making oil and gas pipelines disappear. They're burying them outside Myanmar's second city, Mandalay. Follow the pipeline east from Mandalay and you come to Nong Pha, an ethnic Shan village. Residents here complain that the pipeline has left them utterly destitute. Village chief U Hla Shwe says that the army took away their farmland to build the pipeline last year. He says the Chinese pipeline company gave the army some money to compensate the villagers, but the army kept that money for itself.
U HLA SHWE: (Through Translator) I don't think this is a good project. I don't know what profits my country will get from it. I just know that my family and my neighbors are suffering and starving, and we haven't seen any money.
KUHN: These villagers have lived under a military dictatorship for the past six decades. They say they fear the army, and they don't dare to complain about their troubles.
SHWE: (Through Translator) We have no jobs and no money. Our children can't afford to attend school. Our new president said early in his administration that poverty would be reduced. The present government is really no different from the last one.
KUHN: The pipeline is the most strategically vital of all of China's investments in Myanmar, while Myanmar stands to earn billions of dollars in revenues from the project. It will allow China to import Middle East oil via the pipeline across Myanmar and into China instead of shipping it the long way around the Malay Peninsula. Both the Chinese embassy and the pipeline company declined to be interviewed. In Mandalay, U Tin Thit is coordinator of a group called the Myanmar-China Pipeline Watch Committee. He notes that the last leg of the pipeline will be built in Shan State, where ethnic insurgents have been fighting the government for decades. Tin Thit says that could threaten Burmese national security.
U TIN THIT: (Through Translator) If insurgents attack or blow up part of the pipeline, the Chinese could send troops into Myanmar to protect it. This would have a huge impact on our sovereignty.
KUHN: Officials on both sides deny such a thing could ever happen, but it's a common perception among many Burmese who resent China's influence over their country. In 2011, strong public opposition prompted President Thein Sein to shelve the Chinese-invested Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy River. Ko Ko Hlaing is political adviser to President Thein Sein. He says Myanmar's government will address problems caused by the Chinese investments, but he suggests that like many Southeast Asian nations, Myanmar will be hedging its bets on China.
KO KO HLAING: At the same time, we need some sort of help from the United States as a check and balance power to the Chinese influence on the region.
KUHN: Yun Sun is a scholar at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C. She says that China underestimated Myanmar's political reforms, and she says that China's government believed that Burma would be more grateful for the economic growth that Chinese investments bring.
YUN SUN: As for the downside of these investments, such as the damage to the environment or the deprivation of livelihood of some people, China sees these as necessary costs associated with economic development for a less developed country.
KUHN: In other words, China may have overestimated the appeal of its development model to the Burmese.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)
KUHN: A bell calls monks to prayer at a Buddhist monastery near Mandalay. Abbot U Sein Ni Ta has organized local farmers affected by the oil and gas pipelines. He says he does not want to see his land exploited and his people subjugated, like Burma's deeply Buddhist neighbor just to the north.
U SEIN NI TA: (Through Translator) I don't want my country's fate to be like that of Tibet. The international community should examine the impact of China's investments in Burma. The former military regime signed these deals with China, and now we're paying the price for it.
KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.