Will Burmese democracy movement become pawn in pipeline wars?

History is being made in Burma, as some 100,000 protesters led by Buddhist monks marched through Rangoon Sept. 24, the largest demonstration since a 1988 pro-democracy movement was brutally crushed by the military regime. Surreptitiously shot photographs and videos show thousands of civilians marching with the monks; audio recordings document shouts of “Do-aye!”—”It is our task!”—a slogan also heard in 1988. Protesters raised the political ante Sept. 22 when more than 500 marched past the home of detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, where she greeted them in her first public appearance in more than four years. (SMH, Sept. 25) In a media footnote, dozens of activists protested Sept. 25 against a visit to Rangoon by India’s Petroleum Minister Murli Deora to discuss energy cooperation, including new contracts between Indian and Burmese firms for three deep-water gas exploration blocks. The protesters, who included school children, held placards reading “Hey, Murli Deora, Don’t Go For Gas, Go For Democracy” and “India Stop Supporting Burmese Military Rule.” Said a written statement from the protesters: “It is a shame for the world’s largest democracy to send its cabinet minister to Burma for reasons of exploiting more natural gas from the country at the time people and monks are protesting against the fuel shortages and economic hardships in Burma.” (Reuters, Sept. 24)

We noted two years ago that oil deals were lubricating the India-Burma rapprochement, which resulted in a brutal crackdown on ethnic guerillas seeking independence from India, who had theretofore been using Burmese territory as a staging area.

The US firm Unocal recently had its own interests in construction of a pipeline across Burma to Thailand. In 2004, Unocal settled in a case brought under the US Alien Tort Claims Act charging the company was complicit with forced labor and other rights abuses by the Burmese regime. (Radio Free Asia, Dec. 18, 2004) In 2005, Unocal’s French partner Total agreed to compensate victims to the tune of 6 million euros ($7.2 million), paid into a fund for humanitarian projects. (EarthRights International, Nov. 29, 2005) The Yadana pipeline is functioning today—and being protested by global ecologists for its impacts on the sensitive rainforest regions it cuts through. (Qatar Gulf Times, Sept. 4, 2007)

But now that Burma is integrating with India—which is, in turn, seeking a new gas pipeline with Iran—the Rangoon junta has manifestly outlived its usefulness to the US elites. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley announced Sept. 24 that President Bush will impose new sanctions on the Burmese regime in a bid to support the pro-democracy movement, and will single out Burma in his upcoming UN General Assembly speech. However, details reveal the sanctions mean no more than a visa ban on some members of the junta, and the freezing of assets of some figures linked to the regime. (DPA, Sept. 24) So this is not much more significant than the general embargo imposed by the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act in 2003—significantly, after Unocal’s pipeline was already a fait accompli. Bush’s public embrace (or exploitation) of the Burmese dissidents could do little more than play into the junta’s propaganda portraying them as pawns of Western imperialism.

See our last posts on Burma and the regional pipeline wars.