Aung Gyi is forced to fish covertly under the shroud of night in western Myanmar waters as China bids to transform the strategically key region into a shipping and industrial hub, squeezing out locals who fear being left behind in the gold rush.
Myanmar has declared Rakhine state, associated by many worldwide with the military’s 2017 bloody crackdown on Rohingya Muslims, open for business but locals fear they are being left out of the gold rush as new rules restrict traditional practises.
Paddies and teak forests will be flattened for a colossal Beijing-backed factory zone and deep-sea port, which will serve as its neighbouring giant’s gateway to the Indian Ocean.
But the state’s promise for development comes with fishing restrictions -- the waterways have been freed up for Chinese ships -- a situation that has devastated local lives and livelihoods.
“I might be beaten or arrested” if caught fishing illegally, Aung Gyi says as he lays shrimp out to dry by his dilapidated shack in a small fishing hamlet near the town of Kyaukphyu.
“But I have no choice. Otherwise, my family would starve,” the 28-year-old adds.
Brutal military operations two years ago ravaged the state’s northern fringes and triggered an exodus of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims, but central Rakhine was left largely unscathed.
While many countries and companies remain squeamish about investing in the state, China and other regional giants have no such qualms.
Billions of cubic metres of gas and millions of barrels of oil from off-shore rigs are already pumped each year from here across the country to southern China.
Beijing is now poised to cement its grip on the area with the deep-sea port, signed off in November last year, and a colossal Special Economic Zone (SEZ) of garment and food processing factories.
Today the Kyaukphyu deep-sea port and SEZ are a prize piece in China’s plethora of infrastructure projects spanning the globe under its Belt and Road initiative.
Economist and government advisor Sean Turnell says fears of the project turning into a debt-trap for Myanmar are no longer valid.
But farmer Saw Maung Nu’s land is among territory earmarked to be swallowed up by the 4,200 acre site and he is scared. “If we’re told to leave, where will we live?” he asks, gesturing from a hilltop to neighbouring countryside snapped up by powerful army generals and cronies eager for a windfall of Chinese cash.