(by Joseph Goldstein, Jan. 15, 2008, NYSun.com) – Communist China is aiming to satisfy its growing energy needs with a pipeline through Burma, an effort that will complicate American attempts to change the regime in Rangoon, which has been widely condemned for its human rights abuses.
Burma’s ruling junta, the State Peace and Development Council, attracted global attention in September, when its security forces beat up and arrested monks and civilians who took to the streets in protest. After an even bloodier crackdown against demonstrators in 1988, the junta allowed opposition parties and permitted free elections in 1990, only to later ignore the results.
The junta’s more intransigent response this time can be partly explained, Burma analysts say, by the country’s rising importance to China, as Burma’s offshore reserves of natural gas become a significant contributor to the region’s energy supply.
So far, Thailand has been the only significant buyer of Burma’s offshore gas. Now, a proposed pipeline to draw gas reserves off Burma’s west coast to China is gaining momentum and could open as early as 2010, according to little-noticed regional news reports from last month.
India had also sought to purchase the gas reserves in question, which come from Burma’s offshore Shwe field, but Burma chose to sell to China.
“The sanctions from the West become meaningless with the pipelines,” an exiled Burmese political dissident, essayist, and entrepreneur, Bo Kyaw Nyein, said. “There is a tightening between these two countries at a crucial point in Burmese history.”
Though the gas reserves at issue are small compared to China’s energy needs, a pipeline represents a strategic coup for China ? an overland shortcut straight into the mainland. A pipeline for natural gas would likely be coupled with a pipeline that delivers Middle Eastern crude to China’s southwestern Yunnan province, where there is talk of building a refinery for the crude, according to news reports.
“Shwe is nothing to them, but crude oil coming in through Burma is very significant,” an expatriate Burmese now working in Alaska as a consultant on a natural gas project, Sein Myint, said. “The Chinese are always thinking about oil security and a pipeline across Burma puts Burma in a very important strategy position.”
Currently the supertankers that carry crude oil to China ply a roundabout course through congested shipping lanes before arriving to China’s coast. The pipeline would drastically cut short that journey by allowing tankers to unload crude in the Bay of Bengal near Burma’s Western coast. Besides cutting down on shipping costs, the shortcut diminishes China’s reliance on the Straits of Malacca, which narrow to 1.5 miles and separate Malaysia from Sumatra.
About 80% of China’s oil imports pass through this lane, which is easily closed and frequented by American warships. An overland route for oil requires more than laying pipe. Burma’s Western coast lacks a deep water port to accommodate oil tankers. A likely candidate would be the island of Ramree, where Burmese energy officials have long wished to place a refinery capable of handling sour crude from the Middle East.
There is little economic data available on Burma’s economy, but most experts say the energy sector is its most promising, and only growing, industry. A Human Rights Watch report said natural gas accounted for half of Burma’s 2006 exports, with Thailand paying $2.16 billion for gas.
“Outside investment in Burma’s oil and gas industry has thrown a lifeline to the country’s brutal rulers,” a director of a Human Rights Watch program that examined gas contracts in Burma, Arvind Ganesan, said in a statement.
Annual income from gas exports could amount to $500 million a year to Burma for about 20 years from the pipeline deal, the director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, Gal Luft, said. Further income could derive from rent on the land used by the pipeline, which would likely go directly to the Burmese government.
Although an ally to the junta, China keeps informal contact with opposition Burmese groups, including officials with the National League for Democracy exiled in Thailand, Burmese opposition sources say.
Burmese political dissidents say that an increased stake in Burmese gas may make China more wary of the possibility of a change in government in Burma.
“If Burma had a democratic government, whoever is in charge of energy will start talking with the competition and China no longer will have a special privilege,” Mr. Sein Myint, who returned to Burma briefly as a consultant on a refinery project in the early 1990s, said. “You can imagine they are going to protect their interests. China is the key player to what happens next in Burma.”
A crude oil pipeline beginning on the Burmese island of Ramree and arriving in Southwestern China would likely do little to wean Burma of its dependence on the spot market in Singapore for its own diesel. Burma’s three small refineries don’t come close to satisfying the country’s energy needs and the initial protests in August of this year were sparked when the government slashed energy subsidies, drastically raising the price of natural gas and diesel.
Burma watchers are paying close attention to whether the country’s energy officials can tempt outside investors to commit to building a refinery for Middle Eastern crude on Ramree.
One source of that investment could be Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia and Burma formally established diplomatic relations in 2004, with a Saudi embassy opening the following year in Rangoon. Now Burma is planning to open an embassy in Riyadh, and has already sent a diplomatic delegation there, which is currently housed in hotels, a source with knowledge of the individuals said. Even these tenuous points of contact are prompting significant speculation among Burma watchers, given the few points of common interest that exist between the oil-rich kingdom and one of the world’s most isolated countries.
In the past, Saudi Arabian officials condemned Burma for its persecution of Burma’s Rohingya Muslim minority, which resulted in a mass flight of Rohingya to Bangladesh.
Reprinted here with permission from The New York Sun. Visit the website at NYSun.com.
1. Which country has so far been the only significant buyer of Burma’s offshore gas?
2. What country has recently sought to purchase Burma’s gas reserves, but was turned down in favor of China?
3. Burma’s gas reserves are small compared to China’s energy needs. In addition to the gas it would provide, how would the pipeline help China? Be specific. (For of map that shows China, Burma, Sumatra and Malaysia, click here, then click on the box for larger, more detailed map that shows the Straits of Malacca.)
4. How will a pipeline hurt the citizens of Burma?
5. Why might an increased stake in Burmese gas make China more wary of the possibility of a change in government in Burma, according to Burmese expatriate Sein Myint?
BURMA (adapted from the CIA World FactBook and FreedomHouse.org)
For a detailed report on freedom in Burma, go to freedomhouse.org
- Britain conquered Burma over a period of 62 years (1824-1886) and incorporated it into its Indian Empire. Burma was administered as a province of India until 1937 when it became a separate, self-governing colony; independence from the Commonwealth was attained in 1948.
- The military has ruled since 1962, when the army overthrew an elected government…. During the next 26 years, General Ne Win’s military rule helped impoverish what had been one of Southeast Asia’s wealthiest countries.
- The present junta, led by General Than Shwe, dramatically asserted its power in 1988, when the army opened fire on peaceful, student-led, pro-democracy protesters, killing an estimated 3,000 people.
- Despite … elections in 1990 that resulted in the main opposition party – the National League for Democracy (NLD) – winning a landslide victory, the ruling junta refused to hand over power. NLD leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient AUNG SAN SUU KYI, has been under house arrest on and off since 1989….Her supporters, as well as all those who promote democracy and improved human rights, are routinely harassed or jailed.
- In August 2007, Burmese citizens angry over the government’s decision to double the price of fuel, began staging peaceful protests against the high prices. Buddhist monks were also involved. The government reacted by having the military open fire on peaceful protesters in the streets of Yangon, leaving at least 31 dead and 74 missing, according to a UN report.
- Since the crackdown on the protesters, Burma has faced mounting international pressure to reform.
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