Monday, June 21, 2010

The Thinker: Burma on a Leash

During the time we were struggling to expel the British from our shores, this was a famous chant: “A hardship for the British, an opportunity for the Burmese.”

Half a century later, we could amend the slogan to: “A hardship for the Burmese, an opportunity for the Chinese.”

For Burma has become a satellite of China — economically, politically and militarily.

Earlier this month, Burma’s generals rolled out the red carpet for visiting Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, and reaffirmed the two countries’ fraternal relationship. Junta strongman Sr. Gen. Than Shwe stressed that the two countries have established “a strategic relationship,” a term that can be interpreted as “a strategic alliance of the two countries in political, economic and security issues.”

Although this kind of alliance between two neighboring countries is normal in terms of economic cooperation, a China-Burma strategic relationship could significantly alter the balance of security in the region.

The day after the Chinese premier concluded his trip, Burma’s state-run New Light of Myanmar reported that China National Petroleum Corporation had physically begun the construction of 800-kilometer dual pipelines to import oil and natural gas overland from Burma’s Arakan state.

China will also import the crude oil that it brings from the Middle East and Africa via these pipelines, which commence at Burma’s Kyaukpyu deep seaport off the country’s western coast and cross the country to China’s Yunnan province.

Given the growing presence of China’s commercial interests in the Bay of Bengal, it is clear that Beijing will order an expansion of naval capacity in the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal to ensure the security of its oil tankers.

This creates several serious security concerns for rival India, because the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal are traditionally within New Delhi’s sphere of influence.

CNPC, which is the main investor in the transnational oil and gas pipeline project, is one of China’s three largest state-owned oil and gas companies. The other two companies, China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation (Sinopec) and China National Offshore Oil Corporation have also secured an enormous stake in Burma’s oil and natural gas fields. In fact, according to the Washington-based EarthRights International in 2008, 16 Chinese oil companies are currently invested in Burma.

China has succeeded in securing these energy reserves at the expense of the Western nations that balked at the prospect of dealing with the regime, and fell in line with a US-led sanctions policy.

Make no mistake — securing Burma’s natural resources and keeping the junta in its pocket is one of China’s key foreign policy goals.

For the Burmese generals, the pipeline deal is more than just a massive cash cow; it has strategic value as well. While the military junta in Naypyidaw frequently faces condemnation and sanctions from the international community for its gross violations of human rights, the pipeline guarantees that Beijing will continue to protect Burma and veto calls for sanctions against the junta.

Burma’s armed forces, not to mention its air force and navy, have been significantly upgraded in the past two decades with China’s help. The Burmese air force recently reinforced its capacity with the acquisition of 50 K-8 Karakorum jet fighters from China.

The generals’ reliance on Chinese protection is not, in fact, based on their fears of external threats, but is a result of their policy of refusing to settle peacefully with ethnic armed groups and agreeing national reconciliation with the domestic political opposition.

China has no interest in promoting human rights and democracy in the world, much less in Burma. Chinese leaders aim to build cozy relations with rogue states, such as North Korea, Sudan and Burma, exploiting the so-called principle of “non-interference in other country’s internal affairs.”

Recently, when Al Jazeera aired a documentary accusing Burma of initiating a secret nuclear program, Chinese leaders kept silent. They apparently have no fear of another nuclear power in their backyard. To the Chinese leadership, securing Burma’s huge natural gas reserve is an altogether more immediate concern than tapering its nuclear ambitions.

But for the people of Burma, now is the time to reassess whether our country has fallen into colonial hands again.

If so, it is the duty of all Burmese citizens to stand up and protect the country from becoming a colony or a satellite state of a Greater China.

By Kyaw Zwa Moe managing editor of Irrawaddy magazine.

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