Friday, October 12, 2007

What is going on in Myanmar (Burma)?

What sparked the recent crisis?

On 15 August the government decided to increase the price of fuel. Both petrol and diesel doubled in price, while the cost of compressed gas - used to power buses - increased five-fold. The hikes hit Burma's people hard, forcing up the price of public transport and triggering a knock-on effect for staples such as rice and cooking oil. Pro-democracy activists led the initial demonstrations in Burma's main city, Rangoon. When about 400 people marched on 19 August, it was the largest demonstration in the military-ruled nation for several years. The authorities moved swiftly to quell the protests, rapidly arresting dozens of activists. Demonstrations were held in Rangoon, Sittwe and other towns.

What is the History of Burma?

The Union of Burma was created in 1948, as an independent republic, with Sao Shwe Thaik as its first President and U Nu as its first Prime Minister. A bicameral parliament was formed, consisting of a Chamber of Deputies and a Chamber of Nationalities. The geographical area Burma today can be traced to the Panglong Agreement, which combined Burma Proper, which consisted of Lower Burma and Upper Burma, and the Frontier Areas, which had been administered separately by the British.

Democratic rule ended in 1962 when General Ne Win led a military coup d'├ętat. He ruled for nearly 26 years and pursued policies under the rubric of the Burmese Way to Socialism.

In 1988, unrest over economic mismanagement and political oppression by the government led to widespread demonstrations throughout the country. Hundreds of demonstrators were massacred by security forces, and General Saw Maung staged a coup d'├ętat and formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). In 1989, SLORC declared martial law after widespread protests. SLORC changed the country's official English name from the "Union of Burma" to the "Union of Myanmar" in 1989.

In May 1990, the government held elections for the first time in almost 30 years. The National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, won 392 out of a total 489 seats, but the election results were annulled by SLORC, which refused to step down. In 1992, SLORC unveiled plans to create a new constitution through the National Convention, which began 9 January 1993. To date, this military-organized National Convention has not produced a new constitution despite well over ten years of operation.

Burma, as the US State Department continues to call Myanmar, has been in a constant state of disarray stemming from economic sanctions, political isolation and government mismanagement. In addition to ethnic unrest and widespread poverty, the country faces a constant energy crisis at home, despite oil and gas reserves both on and offshore. Trucks, taxis, buses and private cars spend hours each week in long fuel lines, while black-market fueling stations line highways beyond city limits. Electricity outages are a daily occurrence, and generators dot the sidewalks in front of shops in Yangon and Mandalay.

What is the role of the Monks?

The monks started participating in large numbers after troops used force to break up a peaceful rally in the central town of Pakokku on 5 September. At least three monks were hurt. The next day, monks in Pakokku briefly took government officials hostage. They gave the government until 17 September to apologise, but no apology was forthcoming. When the deadline expired, the monks began to protest in much greater numbers and also withdrew their religious services from the military and their families.
There were daily protests following the deadline, both in Rangoon and elsewhere, which got bigger by the day. Tens of thousands of monks were involved.

The participation of the monks is significant because there are hundreds of thousands of them and they are highly revered. The clergy has historically been prominent in political protests in Burma.

Because of the clergy's influence, the government has tried hard to woo many senior abbots. The fact that the abbots chose to remain silent was a sign for many people that they condoned the protests. The group pledged to continue their protests until they had "wiped the military dictatorship from the land of Burma", and called on people across Burma to join them.

How has the military Junta Reacted?

At first, the country's military leaders held back, letting the protests continue. But after a week of increasingly large protests, they warned they were ready to “take action.” A dawn-to-dusk curfew was introduced and hundreds of troops and riot police moved in to quell further protests. Despite a crackdown on the internet and mobile phone links to the outside world, television pictures showed police using baton charges and tear gas on monks and fellow protesters. On the worst day of violence, 27 September, the junta said nine people had been killed, but the death toll is thought to be far higher.

There have since been reports of thousands of arrests. Monks are said to have been rounded up and held in make-shift detention compounds to be transported to prison camps in the north.

What has been the international reaction to the crisis?

The US has tightened sanctions on the military leadership and, along with the EU, has called for action to be taken over the protests. But neither the US nor the EU have significant influence on the country's leadership.

China, which is Burma's closest ally and seen as having most influence on the junta, has called on the leaders to restrain from violence. But it has maintained its traditional reluctance to interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries. India and Russia, which also have links with Burma and have taken a similar stance.

The Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) - of which Burma is a member - made one of its strongest ever statements against a member country, calling on the Burmese authorities to halt violence against the demonstrators.

The UN's special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, has returned from a visit to the country where he held meetings with the senior military leaders and detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. He will report back to the UN Security Council on the outcome of his meetings.

What are the real positions of the world’s powers?

Publicly, Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown leads Europe's activism, assigning moral responsibility to India and China to influence Myanmar. The United States has talked about sanctions without defining a time frame. Washington has urged India and China to do more to "support the cause of freedom" of the people of Myanmar.


Tom Casey, the US State Department deputy spokesman, said the US "specifically called on India, China and the ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] countries to do more to support the cause of political dialogue and of freedom for the people of Burma [Myanmar]".

An Indian official told Asia Times Online, “New Delhi understands a bit about the hypocrisy in the latest utterances from Europe and the US that will have to back words with action. European subsidiaries and companies continue to invest in Myanmar and have no intentions to withdraw. The Western governments should put pressure on them first."

India has key energy interests in Myanmar and has been actively working for the last decade to reduce the influence of China, which has gas projects in the country. India's Oil Minister, Murli Deora, visited the country at the time of the protests and pledged Indian investments of $150 million for gas exploration. India's state-run explorer - Oil and Natural Gas Corp (ONGC) - and its counterpart, the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, signed production-sharing contracts for the development of three deep-water exploration blocks off Myanmar's western Rakhine coast. All three blocks are believed to have good hydrocarbon potential as they are close to shallow water blocks A-1 and A-3 where ONGC is part of a consortium developing a gas find.

Irked by delays in implementing the Myanmar-Bangladesh-India pipeline, and with strategic support from China at international forums, Myanmar has signed a memorandum of understanding with PetroChina to supply 6.5 trillion cubic feet of gas from Block A of the Shwe gas fields in the Bay of Bengal for over 30 years. PetroChina is the listed subsidiary of China National Petroleum Corporation. The advent of China as an end-user creates an awkward situation as India will effectively be supplying gas to China, its biggest competitor for oil and gas. Shwe is expected to generate up to $600 million in revenue every year for Myanmar over the next two decades.

Clearly, fast-developing India has more pressing issues to tackle than backing ideals of democracy in Myanmar.


China has significant historic, political, and economic ties to Myanmar. Burma was the first non-communist country to recognize the People's Republic of China in 1949. The China-Burma border dispute was settled in 1960.

China has been a staunch supporter of the current military junta, providing arms and diplomatic support in the United Nations, as well as aid for infrastructure and projects to increase cross-border commerce. Moreover, northern Myanmar has a large ethnic-Chinese population, creating cultural ties that facilitate trade between the two countries. China considers Myanmar be securely within its sphere of influence and sees India's attempts to increase its presence as a direct challenge.

With proven natural-gas reserves of about 2.48 trillion cubic meters, representing 1.4% of the world supply, and little capital or infrastructure to exploit it, Myanmar is increasingly at the center of growing competition between India and China to develop and transport offshore natural gas to their respective home markets.

Chinese-funded ports and bases reportedly under construction in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Pakistan increase India's concerns that China might someday challenge them in the Indian Ocean, validating their desire to build another aircraft carrier. China's opaque military buildup is an additional cause for India's concern as China's academics debate the geopolitical impact of having its own aircraft carrier and People's Liberation Army officers consider the technical complexities of building and operating one.


The European Union has placed sanctions on Burma, including an arms embargo, cessation of trade preferences, and suspension of all aid with the exception of humanitarian aid. They also have sanctions against the military government, coupled with boycotts and other direct pressure on corporations by western supporters of the Burmese democracy movement, have resulted in the withdrawal from Burma of most US and many European companies. However, several Western companies remain due to loopholes in the sanctions.

France's Total with Malaysia's Petronas currently pumps gas from Myanmar through a pipeline to Thailand, which takes the bulk of Myanmar's gas output. Total has defended its presence in Myanmar, saying oil and gas reserves are not necessarily located in democracies. Authorities in Belgium moved to reopen a case brought by Myanmar refugees alleging that Total was involved in crimes against humanity in the country. New York-based Human Rights Watch has called on firms invested in Myanmar to use their influence on the military regime to end its abuses.


The US has placed a ban on new investments by US firms, an import ban, and an arms embargo on Burma, as well as frozen military assets in the United States because of the military regime’s ongoing human rights abuses, the ongoing detention of Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi, and refusal to honor the election results of the 1990 People’s Assembly election.

US First Lady Laura Bush has been vocal about the political repression in Myanmar and sees China as a logical instrument with leverage to drive political change. She has met with activists and called UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to discuss the issue of Myanmar. In a recent interview reported by the Wall Street Journal, the first lady stated her strategy: "China does have a huge amount of influence over Burma," she said. "They share a border, for one thing. But also, they ... use the natural resources out of Burma," and in the end "they prop up a government that - a failed state, really, is what they're propping up, just like in the Sudan." Mrs Bush added, "Right now, after cooperating with China in the six-party talks with North Korea, and with the Chinese Olympics coming up, I think this is a really good time for activists and advocates for Burma and the Sudan and other countries to put pressure on China." The US apart from condemning the military Junta has laid blame on China who needs to use its influence to shore up the troubles of Myanmar.

Are we witnessing yet more hypocrisy from the West?

Although the Western world have condemned the crackdown by the military junta of its own people they however at the same time have cordial economic relations with the military junta which makes it very clear the resources of Myanmar are too good an opportunity to loose for the sake of democracy.

According to pressure group Burma Campaign's annual 'Dirty List’ 37 global companies have been added to the list this year. The revised list of 1995 contains companies which the Burma Campaign claims directly or indirectly help finance Burma's military dictatorship. Firms including BAT, P&O, WPP, PwC and Ernst & Young have pulled out of Burma in the past year following pressure. However many companies have also gone in such as Rolls-Royce who has a contract to supply and service aircraft engines for at least one Burmese airline. "We believe foreign policy is a matter for government, not companies," a spokesman for Rolls Royce said. British companies alone have committed $1.4bn to the country over the past 10 years. The Campaign claims that Lloyd's of London provides insurance and reinsurance services through its members to companies investing in Burma. It also insures Burmese companies such as Yangon Airways by working through regime-owned insurers.

Travel firm Abercrombie & Kent (A&K) was listed for continuing to offer tours to the region. A spokesperson for the company said that the UK branch no longer includes Burma in its list of holiday destinations. However, the US branch of A&K has several tours to Burma in its 2004-2005 brochure, according to the Dirty List.

Although President Bush declared that Americans “stand in solidarity with these brave individuals,” the US and Britain are not responding to the humanitarian situation in Myanmar with the same determination which they exhibited for Iraq. Western media haven’t rushed in to make a case for war against the brutal regime of Myanmar’s Senior General Than Shwe, who has denied his people not only political freedom but also the basic requisites for a dignified life?

What does the future hold for Myanmar?

Clearly China has the most influence over Myanmar, which goes back decades and now includes extensive energy and mineral interests. India has been attempting to gain a foothold in Myanmar due to its increasing energy needs. India is working to catch up to the level influence China has in Myanmar, hence in the foreseeable future competition will continue between India and China for Myanmar’s resources and the military junta is more then willing to support the two growing nations for its own survival.

Myanmar's "Valley of Rubies", the mountainous Mogok area, 125 square miles are what Burma's rulers depend on, sales of precious stones such as sapphires, pearls and jade to fund their regime. Rubies are the biggest earner; 90% of the world's rubies come from Myanmar whose red stones are prized for their purity. However Burma is one of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia, suffering from decades of stagnation, mismanagement and isolation.

The US and the West have played mere lip service to democracy in Myanmar, and its continued support of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) is aimed mainly at maintaining a foothold in Myanmar for a possible future role should tensions heat up with China.

But their will be no sweeping reforms, no meaningful move towards democracy or respect for the so-called human rights. None of this will materialize in the case of Myanmar, because intervention does not serve the interests of the main influential parties - not the West’s, nor China’s, nor Russia’s. We may see a few sentimental meetings between Aung San Suu Kyi and representatives of the generals, and perhaps a few gestures of goodwill by the latter, at the joint behest of China and the West. However as has been seen in Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Somalia the voice of the people will be drowned out by extensive commercial interests.

Thursday, 11 October 2007


No comments: