Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Burma/Myanmar as a Brothel (of Natural Resources)

Burma/Myanmar as a Brothel (of Natural Resources)

This FBC Posting contains:

1). Compiler's Remark: Burma as a Brothel
2). Thailand scouts for energy
3). China builds Myanmar's largest hydropower plant
4). Campaign launched to pressure Total into leaving Myanmar

Burma/Myanmar as a Brothel (of Natural Resources): Politics of Economic Development

Zarni, Free Burma Coalition

"Development economics" as a field is considered a relatively new discipline (perhaps less than 50 years old). Burma produced its share of "world class" economists such as Dr. Hla Myint who held endowed chairs at both Oxford and LSE and who later served as head of Rangoon University (during General Ne Win's Caretaker Government ?). Some contemporaries or those slightly junior to him with Burma connections such as Amartya Sen who stressed the link between (economic) development and freedom have gone on to win international accolades including Nobel prize for economics.

But the progressively more strident emphasis on the advancement of the material - as opposed to intellectual, spiritual or philosophical - well-being of societies through technological advancement, industrialization, and Capital accumulation began way before the post-World War II birth of development economics.

Despite divergent forms of governance, many governments,that manage transitional economies in newly industrializing nations such as China, India, Thailand, and so on, drink from the very ideological well-spring - the generally unquestioned faith in Economic Development, narrowly defined.

The resultant race to the bottom for non-renewable resources, market shares, stable and secure transport/trade routes, is, in the final instance, what shapes foreign policies of governments in pursuit of development or greater development.

Global civil society, especially in the so-called global South which by and large has long been fragmented along race, class, ethnic, gender, and ideological lines and which have been kept weak and weakened by political repression resultant, in part, of typical post-colonial mess, appear to be no match for dealing or addressing the excesses of these global economic processes.

Despite annual activist social fora and resistance led by a disproportionately small band of internationalists and progressives in "the Global North" - which includes rich, technological advanced, G-7 nations of the West (save Japan) plus others - not much headways have been made in questioning, let alone slowing down or re-shaping, the maddening pursuit of "Big is Beautiful" ideology, that is, more fuels, more consumption, more TVs, more cars, more food, more power, more money, more guns, more nukes, and so on. The elite want more things, great, fine, big and so on. They pursue them - at all costs. For they measure their success or worth against the yardstick of those (in the technologically more advanced, culturally/ideologically more prestigious, economically better endowed and militarily stronger West, who have things greater, finer, bigger, etc.)

In this line of business, contrary to the massively popularized role given to the so-called Free Market as the engine for economic growth, political states have been placed, both historically and in contempory world, in the driver's seat in nations' pursuit of economic and other interests. One must not be fooled by the neo-liberal high priests who rescribe, for those nations that are still on their way up the economic ladder of the State, to abandon it.

Such policy constructs as "privatization," "structural adjustment," "devaluation (of local currency)," etc. serve as useful pills to sedate - or strong-arm, as the case might be - the politically stubborn States and their indigenous urban elite.

Be that as it may, the following articles indicate, that Asia's giant economies are repeating the 'tried and true' historical patterns toward industrialization and economic development. Though late bloomers in this unstoppable race for economic growth, they are folloowing a similar path which G-7 nations have already travelled - scramble for natural resources, military defense of their newly acquired and ever expanding markets and other strategic interests, and forming alliances and blocks to herd off rivals and comptetitors.

We can moralize about, and agonize over, this historical process which has assumed different names, forms and strategies over the past 500 years since the days of Columbus, the Dutch East India Company, the British Raj, the International Bank of Reconstruction, etc. To be sure, there are differences and ruptures with the past's approaches. Nontheless, the pattern and the larger goals remain, more or less, the same - establishment of one's security - however defined - and projection of one's influence onto others.

Regardless race, ethnicty, class, faith and creed, the countrymen and -women of Burma - or Myanmar, if you like - will have to face this overwhelming reality.

The (Burmese) society at large, as well as both the ruling junta and the counter-elite, are between rock and a hard-place. They (we) will have to make tough choices in terms of dealing with the corporate/capital-driven economic development while attempting to tackle the unfinished business of pushing for ethnic equality, human rights, democratization, and so on.
As long as indigenous parties in conflict insist on establishing the primacy of their own corporate, communal and individual/personal concerns over that of others', our Burma will soon be - or perhaps more accurately, is being - turned into "a brothel of natural resources." Not out of conspiracy or malice toward us, the Burmese, but for their own internal logic and national self-interests, other nations will suck what is left unrotten in our country - trees, fertile soils, water ways, coast lines, minerals, non-renewal resources, and so on.

Those that came before these nations travelling on this route have done the same - grind anything weak and small on their march toward power, wealth and domination - albeit under different forms with various justifying ideologies.

Why should we expect the current giants and/or regional power-houses to behave any different from the past masters of Development and Civilization?

The question for Burma is not whether we should remain isolated in our own national or ethnic or political or ideological shells, as it were, - but how are we going to deal effectively, pragmatically, and strategically with this historically rooted process that has been thrust upon us.

The late despot General Ne Win tried to do just that - isolate Burma for his own ends, leaving a generation of Burmese, both civilian and "trousered men," ill-equipped to deal with the outside world.

History is said to repeat itself although under different circumstances and with slight variations. By having made wrong strategic choices, our anscestors a hundred years ago failed to meet the challenges they didn't seek out.

A century later, we are faced with similar historic choices.

We can be reasonably sure that General Ne Win would have blessed the current pro-isolationist, strategic choice of the opposition. He would indeed be applauding us for having worked tirelessly to isolate Burma, her vital institutions and her civil society - notwithstanding our self-professed higher and nobler aims than those held by the late despot.

History always comes with ironies. And the greatest irony of a social movement that toppled, in effect, Ne Win and his rule is that it has come to embrace, perhaps unwittingly, the General's strategic choice of dealing with contemporary challenges - further isolation of the country from the outside world.

The saddest thing is we have been forced to market this choice as "freedom struggle."
Feb 23, 2005Thailand scouts for energy

SINGAPORE - One of Thailand's major challenges in the next decade will be meeting the increasing demand for power. To do so Thailand will have to import more energy - an issue with business, economic and political implications - and recast relations with countries in the region, such as Myanmar and Cambodia, with whom it has not always seen eye to eye.

Energy import options include liquefied natural gas (LNG) from various possible sources - the Middle East, Indonesia and Australia; hydropower from neighbors in the Mekong Delta; and more natural gas from Myanmar. Energy demand should also be an incentive to resolve a long-standing maritime boundary dispute with Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand. This has long prevented exploration and development of a very large oil and gas prospective, a 30,000 square kilometer area in the northern Gulf of Thailand known as the Overlapping Claims Area.
Thailand's power-generating capacity currently is overwhelmingly based on natural gas - more than 70% of the generation is gas-based - supplied mainly from Thai fields in the Gulf of Thailand (operated mostly by Unocal of the US) and also from Myanmar, from the Yetagun and Yadana fields in the Gulf of Martaban (operated by Malaysia's state-owned Petronas and France's Total, respectively.) Some 25% of Thailand's total gas supply is now provided by Myanmar.

But the existing power and fuel supply system is inadequate to meet the emerging scale of demand. Thailand's economic growth has returned to the high levels experienced before the 1997 financial crisis, as reflected in energy demand projections. With government planners anticipating an annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth 6% to 2015, there is an ever-widening gap opening up between expected gas demand - mainly for power but also for industry boilers - and supply from existing fields and fields under development in the Gulf of Thailand and the Gulf of Martaban.

Gas demand is projected by the partly state-owned and now listed Petroleum Authority of Thailand (PTT) to grow by an annual average of 8% from 2004 to 2012. Average consumption would rise from about 2.9 billion cubic feet at present to about 5.2 billion cubic feet. The prospect of a growing gas deficit comes on top of the problem of an already large oil deficit. The Gulf of Thailand produces little oil compared with its large gas output. In 2004, Thailand imported 950,000 barrels per day of crude and products against domestic production of 80,000 barrels per day of crude. This deficit is projected to grow further.

Thailand does have a large refining capacity, and the government believes that this may enable the country to become a more important oil products exporter, even if local crude production is small. As far as power demand and associated fuel supply are concerned, the Thai government must now make long-term decisions to meet the future shortfall. A range of options includes new development in the Gulf of Thailand and construction of a fourth major transmission pipeline from offshore platforms to shore. But there is debate as to just how much additional gas can be supplied on top of the existing levels.

Important additional gas supply should flow from the Thai-Malaysia Joint Development Area (JDA) in the lower Gulf of Thailand. A gas pipeline is being constructed from the JDA to northwest Malaysia, and a link is under development from the north into the Thai system. Another long-term possibility is supply from Vietnamese fields adjacent to the Thai maritime border in the Gulf of Thailand.

Another solution could be to import LNG. Thai Energy Minister Prommin Lertsurideh discussed this possibility along with oil imports in December, when he visited Iran, where several ambitious projects are being pursued by Tehran. Despite US economic sanctions on Iran, non-US oil majors, including Shell, Total of France and Petronas, are all jockeying for a role there. Apart from Thai interests, India and China have recently signed preliminary agreements with Iran for large volumes of LNG.

LNG imports to Thailand are not new. In the mid 1990s, when gas demand grew quickly driven by power generation fuel needs, Thailand signed a memorandum of understanding for LNG imports from Oman. The plan was put aside after the 1997 financial crisis.

Another option before the government is to shift power generation reliance away from gas. Hydro energy is currently favored over turning to coal-fired generation. Coal, which would have to be imported from Indonesia and Australia, has been rejected - at least for the time being - because of the derailing of two large planned coal-fired independent power plant projects by community and environment group protests in 2002.

Hydro projects can also be difficult to advance in Thailand right now because of community and environmental concerns. As a result, Thai planners are looking at more reliance on imported hydropower from Myanmar, Laos and Yunnan in China. Thailand already imports a small amount of hydropower from Laos.

Myanmar is emerging as a possible critical source of energy for Thailand. The governments of the two countries are proposing to jointly construct a 7,000-megawatt hydropower plant on the Salween River, part of which forms the border between Thailand and Cambodia. The significance of this is underlined by the fact that Thailand's total power generation capacity is currently 24,000 megawatts. Another possibility is to take more gas from the Gulf of Martaban.
Several companies, including Thailand's partly state-owned and listed upstream PTT Exploration and Production Co Ltd, are exploring in the Gulf of Martaban. Others include Malaysia's state-owned Petronas and China's state-owned China National Offshore Oil Co Ltd (CNOOC). For Myanmar's military regime, the energy sector has become a critical source of foreign exchange. Gas exports to Thailand are worth US$1 billion a year and represent 40% of legal exports. Apart from royalties and taxes, Yangon gains revenue through participation of the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Co in these operations.

Elsewhere in Myanmar, another Chinese state-owned oil company, PetroChina, is operating onshore. The idea of a Sino-Myanmar oil pipeline has also been put forward to provide southern China with an alternative to importing oil via ship through the Malacca Strait. Offshore to the west near the border with Bangladesh, a consortium including India's Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and the Gas Authority of India, and South Korean companies Daewoo and Korean Gas Corp have declared discoveries of large reserves of natural gas. In January, a meeting of ministers from India, Bangladesh and Myanmar in Yangon put forward the idea of a pipeline to India via Bangladesh.

Interest in Myanmar by Thailand, India and China as a source of energy points to the fact that US economic sanctions and pressure elsewhere in the West on companies who do or may wish to do business in Myanmar because of the regime's human-rights abuses and failure so far to allow democratic processes have had little effect on Asian oil and gas companies. They now have both the technical expertise and the finances to operate in ways they arguably could not have done a decade or so ago.

China builds Myanmar's largest hydropower plant

SINGAPORE, Feb 22 (Reuters) - China has built a 280-megawatt hydropower plant in Myanmar, the largest of its kind in the impoverished Southeast Asian nation, an official Chinese industry Web site reported on Tuesday.

Local firms in China's southwest Yunnan province, which borders Myanmar, completed the project this month that would generate 910 million kilowatt hours (kwh) of electricity a year, the State Power Information network reported on its Web site (http://www.sp.com.cn/).
It did not give the cost of the plant, but said the project was financed and built by the Chinese firms.

China, one of Myanmar's largest creditors, has stepped up energy investments in the country since last year.

State-run Sinopec Group and offshore oil major CNOOC Ltd. <0883.hk> were awarded a total of four blocks to explore for oil and gas in Myanmar last year.
02/22/05 06:10 ET



PARIS (AFP) - Some 40 organizations launched an international campaign aimed at pressuring the French oil giant Total to pull out of Myanmar, where they said the company's activities support a military dictatorship, a French activist collective announced.

The campaign is led by the International Federation for Human Rights, Actions Birmanie of Belgium and the French collective, which is called "Total pollutes democracy."

"Total must pull out of Burma (Myanmar) not only for having taken advantage of army-imposed forced labor, between 1995 and 1998, for the construction of the Yadana gas pipeline but also because it fills the coffers of a predatory regime," Olivier De Schutter, secretary general of the International Federation for Human Rights, told a press conference.

"It is not possible to pretend, as Total does, that you can deal with Burma without enabling the junta to increase its power.

"The entire economy is in the hands of a small group of soldiers who do nothing for the population," he charged.

"Forty percent of the budget is allocated to military spending; 0.4 percent to health and education, according to the United Nations Development Program."

If Total withdraws from Myanmar, according to the French collective, "one would hope that France would finally support the adoption of significant economic sanctions against the Burmese junta, as the democratic movement in the country has asked."