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Backyard oil barons pursue riches in jungle

Before they are old enough to drill for oil themselves, many children soak up excess oil from the ground with old clothes. (Photo by Hong Sar Ramonya)

MINHLA, Myanmar -- Deep inside Myanmar's jungles lie dark secrets. The illegal oil camp of Da Hut Bin, tucked away in the forests of Minhla, in Magway Region, is a well-hidden one. It is a phenomenon best seen at night: From the top of a mountain viewpoint thousands of lights carve out a cityscape through the dense smog. Below, in the region's underbelly, the dull clunk of hopeful workers digging for oil thuds on throughout the night.

     "Workers sleep when they're tired," said political activist Nyi Nyi Aung, a popular spokesperson for the people in Minhla. "They have no schedule. If works needs to be done, then they do it." As day slowly breaks, the light of dawn reveals an alien landscape of patchwork oil tents next to withering bamboo huts.

Workers climb steel scaffolding in the midday sun. The scaffolding is owned by one of the wealthier oil barons in the region -- most make do with bamboo. (Photo by Hong Sar Ramonya)

     This is a town full of backyard oil barons -- around 120,000 of them. Minhla is a jumble of Myanmar's poorest and most ambitious. Bizarrely, the government has not yet fully exploited one of the country's richest oil fields, and people from all over the country are scrambling to get rich in Myanmar's oil pot before the fumbling regime corrects itself.

     "He's all the way from Karen State," said Nyi Nyi Aung, pointing to a local worker. "His brother came here too. There were no jobs there, so they came with their families to Minhla having heard stories of oil." Similar stories are told repeatedly of the tens of thousands who have migrated.

     Those who have invested everything in the camps are frequently introduced by Nyi Nyi Aung as "livers," rather than workers. It is a mistranslation that happens to work perfectly. Their lives are in the oil fields, and workers have donated their families, wealth and bodies to the cause. With only one school near the camps, most children grow up with the oil, and are dragged into the business of extracting it at around 12 years old.

     Unlike the industrial scale of nearby oil companies, Minhla's oil drilling is a family affair -- women work with their husbands and children play alongside wells more than 30 meters deep. Most children start their careers as scavengers; they scour the oil sites for broken plastic pipes and empty beer cans, then sell every 60kg for 400 Myanmar kyat (30 cents).

     Those who have struck lucky are now rich: The wealthiest man in the area collects more than 2,000 liters of oil a day. Those who cannot afford machines pump by hand, often collecting less than 2 liters. Most are self-employed, and pay for their own machinery. After borrowing money from friends, Aung Soe came to the region three years ago. "If I can't find oil in one spot I end up drilling more, and if it doesn't work I drill again. It's a vicious circle," he said. "I just ended staying here to try and make a living." Now in 4.5 million kyat of debt, Aung Soe cannot return to his own village before repaying his lenders. "No one wants to stay here in the forest," he sighs. It is a volatile environment, and a life that is hard to settle into.

Officially illegal

Officially, the oil operations are illegal. "The government's abandoned us," said local medical practitioner Thet Naing. "All of the trained doctors in the area left." He and his wife are the most qualified medical practitioners in the area. "I am ex-army: infantry. I was a fighter, man. We learnt so much first aid -- all the checks: blood pressure, heartbeat." His wife was trained as a nurse and worked for the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees after Cyclone Nargis, which caused widespread deaths and damage in Myanmar in 2008. "She's the only one in the area who has any official paperwork. Other doctors have no training or learning, they just build their knowledge up as they go along," he said.

Deserted oil wells litter the camp of Da Hut Bin, and tents cover those currently in use. (Photo by Hong Sar Ramonya)

     One of the biggest issues, according to Nyi Nyi Aung, is that the residents of the camp cannot vote in Myanmar's upcoming parliamentary election in November, which will set the country's course for many years to come. Many immigrants to the area are still technically residents of their former villages, and would have to return to cast their votes. For many, that is impractical. "That's one of my main goals -- to set up a voting house," Nyi Nyi Aung said. But this is unlikely to happen -- the people in Minhla are not likely to vote for a government that has left them behind, so they are unlikely to attract much official support. "There's no social security, either," said Nyi Nyi Aung. "When somebody dies, there's nobody to arrange for a funeral. These people can't even die with any dignity, let alone live."

     Law and order is fragile, with only a handful of policemen drifting in and out of the area. Hla Myint, a migrant from Yenanchaung said, "We're more afraid of land owners than the police." None of the land is officially owned by anyone, yet oil workers pay protection money to local people who claim it. "They ask for so much money," said the Yenanchaung migrant. "The price depends on the type of land. It could be anywhere from 50,000 kyat to 300,000 kyat."

     The local government has the ability to crack down at any time. In February, officials threatened to clear the land. "Several trucks arrived filled with policemen carrying smoke guns," recalls Hlya Myint. "They told us that if we don't move on, we will be tried for rebellion. We said we were just doing our jobs, but they claimed that we cut down the trees. We never did that, we just dug holes [for the oil]. We asked them to bring trees. We will plant them and make them grow."

Fatal wounds

Little regard is given to safety, and accidents are common. Sometimes the oil streams are very powerful, and fatal head wounds are not unheard of. "If the hand crank gets out of control and spins too fast because of the high pressure," said Thet Naing, "you might get hit in the head, and then you could die. We get so many broken hands here -- by cutting the plastic, digging with hands, and so on."

"I'm here to help out my grandchildren," says a 75-year-old woman as she drills for oil. (Photo by Hong Sar Ramonya)

     After accidents the workers quickly become weak. Pain makes sleep difficult, and common infections frequently develop into stomach problems; workers find that they cannot eat, and so they cannot work. "Small problems like this become much bigger," said Thet Naing, "and people are forced to take care of themselves." Alcohol and drug abuse is rife in the area. "Most people have no education," said Thet Naing, "so they drive motorcycles too fast when they're drunk -- often carrying two petrol canisters on the back -- and end up having head on collisions."

     A concerned policeman, Win Naing, said he was trying to crack down on crime in the area. "I don't want drugs, alcoholism or gambling or prostitution here. People waste so much money on them and it makes everything so much harder, especially for the children."

     Thet Naing shows his operating room, a bamboo hut. "Here we can do it in the domestic style. We can sterilize the instruments and have single-use syringes and bandages, but supplies are limited." With bigger accidents, Thet Naing rushes patients to the hospital in an ambulance using a new road. "The road's been finished six months, so it's a lot better," he said. "We think in the way of an NGO [nongovernmental organization]. If the patient is very poor we donate money, but we can't do that all the time. Some petrol field owners are rich men. They can provide money for their workers, no problem. But others? They aren't so lucky. Nobody else cares about them."

     Despite its dangers, Minhla remains a bastion of hope and a symbol of opportunity. Although the oil will run out and the workers will eventually have to move on, for now they plan to stay put. As one man in plastic boots and a sun hat said: "In the end, it means [the government] dies or we die. We have to fight back."

Due to the illegal nature of "backyard" oil operations, some names have been changed to protect workers.

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