The Geopolitical Stakes of 'Saffron
by William Engdahl
Asia Times, October 21, 2007
There are facts and then there are facts.
Take the case of the recent mass protests in Burma or Myanmar,
depending on which name you prefer to call the former British
First it's a fact which few will argue
that the present military dictatorship of the reclusive General
Than Shwe is right up there when it comes to world-class tyrannies.
It's also a fact that Myanmar enjoys one of the world's lowest
general living standards. Partly as a result of the ill-conceived
100% to 500% price hikes in gasoline and other fuels in August,
inflation, the nominal trigger for the mass protests led by saffron-robed
Buddhist monks, is unofficially estimated to have risen by 35%.
Ironically the demand to establish "market" energy prices
came from the IMF and World Bank.
The UN estimates that the population of
some 50 million inhabitants spend up to 70% of their monthly income
on food alone. The recent fuel price hike makes matters unbearable
for tens of millions.
Myanmar is also deeply involved in the
world narcotics trade, ranking only behind Hamid Karzai's Afghanistan
as a source for heroin. As well, it is said to be Southeast Asia's
largest producer of methamphetamines.
This is all understandable powder to unleash
a social explosion of protest against the regime.
It is also a fact that the Myanmar military
junta is on the hit list of US Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice and the Bush administration for its repressive ways. Has
the Bush leopard suddenly changed his spots? Or is there a more
opaque agenda behind Washington's calls to impose severe economic
and political sanctions on the regime? Here some not-so-publicized
Behind the recent CNN news pictures of
streams of monks marching in the streets of the former capital
city, Yangon, calling for more democracy, is a battle of major
The major actors
The tragedy of Myanmar, whose land area
is about the size of George W Bush's Texas, is that its population
is being used as a human stage prop in a drama scripted in Washington
by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the George Soros
Open Society Institute, Freedom House and Gene Sharp's Albert
Einstein Institution, a US intelligence asset used to spark "non-violent"
regime change around the world on behalf of the US strategic agenda.
Myanmar's "Saffron Revolution",
like the Ukraine "Orange Revolution" or the Georgia
"Rose Revolution" and the various color revolutions
instigated in recent years against strategic states surrounding
Russia, is a well-orchestrated exercise in Washington-run regime
change, down to the details of "hit-and-run" protests
with "swarming" mobs of monks in saffron, Internet blogs,
mobile SMS links between protest groups, well-organized protest
cells which disperse and re-form. CNN made the blunder during
a September broadcast of mentioning the active presence of the
NED behind the protests in Myanmar.
In fact the US State Department admits
to supporting the activities of the NED in Myanmar. The NED is
a US government-funded "private" entity whose activities
are designed to support US foreign policy objectives, doing today
what the CIA did during the Cold War. As well, the NED funds Soros'
Open Society Institute in fostering regime change in Myanmar.
In an October 30, 2003 press release the State Department admitted,
"The United States also supports organizations such as the
National Endowment for Democracy, the Open Society Institute and
Internews, working inside and outside the region on a broad range
of democracy promotion activities." It all sounds very self-effacing
and noble of the State Department. Is it though?
In reality the US State Department has
recruited and trained key opposition leaders from numerous anti-government
organizations in Myanmar. It has poured the relatively huge sum
(for Myanmar) of more than $2.5 million annually into NED activities
in promoting regime change in Myanmar since at least 2003. The
US regime change effort, its Saffron Revolution, is being largely
run, according to informed reports, out of the US Consulate General
in bordering Chaing Mai, Thailand. There activists are recruited
and trained, in some cases directly in the US, before being sent
back to organize inside Myanmar. The US's NED admits to funding
key opposition media including the New Era Journal, Irrawaddy
and the Democratic Voice of Burma radio.
The concert-master of the tactics of Saffron
monk-led non-violence regime change is Gene Sharp, founder of
the deceptively-named Albert Einstein Institution in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, a group funded by an arm of the NED to foster US-friendly
regime change in key spots around the world. Sharp's institute
has been active in Myanmar since 1989, just after the regime massacred
some 3,000 protestors to silence the opposition. CIA special operative
and former US military attache in Rangoon, Col Robert Helvey,
an expert in clandestine operations, introduced Sharp to Myanmar
in 1989 to train the opposition there in non-violent strategy.
Interestingly, Sharp was also in China two weeks before the dramatic
events at Tiananmen Square.
Why Myanmar now?
A relevant question is why the US government
has such a keen interest in fostering regime change in Myanmar
at this juncture. We can dismiss rather quickly the idea that
it has genuine concern for democracy, justice, human rights for
the oppressed population there. Iraq and Afghanistan are sufficient
testimony to the fact Washington's paean to democacy is propaganda
cover for another agenda.
The question is, what would lead to such
engagement in such a remote place as Myanmar?
Geopolitical control seems to be the answer
- control ultimately of the strategic sea lanes from the Persian
Gulf to the South China Sea. The coastline of Myanmar provides
naval access in the proximity of one of the world's most strategic
water passages, the Strait of Malacca, the narrow ship passage
between Malaysia and Indonesia.
The Pentagon has been trying to militarize
the region since September 11, 2001 on the argument of defending
against possible terrorist attack. The US has managed to gain
an airbase on Banda Aceh, the Sultan Iskandar Muda Air Force Base,
on the northernmost tip of Indonesia. The governments of the region,
including Myanmar, however, have adamantly refused US efforts
to militarize the region. A glance at a map will confirm the strategic
importance of Myanmar.
The Strait of Malacca, linking the Indian
and Pacific Oceans, is the shortest sea route between the Persian
Gulf and China. It is the key chokepoint in Asia. More than 80%
of all China's oil imports are shipped by tankers passing the
Malacca Strait. The narrowest point is the Phillips Channel in
the Singapore Strait, only 1.5 miles wide at its narrowest. Each
day, more than 12 million barrels in oil supertankers pass through
this narrow passage, most en route to the world's fastest-growing
energy market, China, or to Japan.
If the strait were closed, nearly half
of the world's tanker fleet would be required to sail further.
Closure would immediately raise freight rates worldwide. More
than 50,000 vessels per year transit the Strait of Malacca. The
region from Maynmar to Banda Aceh in Indonesia is fast becoming
one of the world's most strategic chokepoints. Who controls those
waters controls China's energy supplies.
That strategic importance of Myanmar has
not been lost on Beijing.
Since it became clear to China that the
US was hell-bent on a unilateral militarization of the Middle
East oil fields in 2003, Beijing has stepped up its engagement
in Myanmar. Chinese energy and military security, not human rights
concerns, drives their policy.
In recent years Beijing has poured billions
of dollars in military assistance into Myanmar, including fighter,
ground-attack and transport aircraft; tanks and armored personnel
carriers; naval vessels and surface-to-air missiles. China has
built up Myanmar railroads and roads and won permission to station
its troops in Myanmar. China, according to Indian defense sources,
has also built a large electronic surveillance facility on Myanmar's
Coco Islands and is building naval bases for access to the Indian
In fact Myanmar is an integral part of
what China terms its "string of pearls", its strategic
design of establishing military bases in Myanmar, Thailand and
Cambodia in order to counter US control over the Strait of Malacca
chokepoint. There is also energy on and offshore of Myanmar, and
lots of it.
The gas fields of Myanmar
Oil and gas have been produced in Myanmar
since the British set up the Rangoon Oil Company in 1871, later
renamed Burmah Oil Co. The country has produced natural gas since
the 1970s, and in the 1990s it granted gas concessions to the
foreign companies ElfTotal of France and Premier Oil of the UK
in the Gulf of Martaban. Later Texaco and Unocal (now Chevron)
won concessions at Yadana and Yetagun as well. Yadana alone has
an estimated gas reserve of more than 5 trillion cubic feet and
an expected life of at least 30 years. Yetagun is estimated to
have about a third the gas of the Yadana field.
In 2004 a large new gas field, Shwe field,
off the coast of Arakan, was discovered.
By 2002 both Texaco and Premier Oil withdrew
from the Yetagun project following UK government and non-governmental
pressure. Malaysia's Petronas bought Premier's 27% stake. By 2004
Myanmar was exporting Yadana gas via pipeline to Thailand, worth
$1 billion annually to the Myanmar regime. In 2005 China, Thailand
and South Korea invested in expanding the Myanmar oil and gas
sector, with export of gas to Thailand rising 50%.
Gas export today is Myanmar's most important
source of income. Yadana was developed jointly by ElfTotal, Unocal,
PTT-EP of Thailand and Myanmar's state MOGE, operated by ElfTotal.
Yadana supplies some 20% of Thai natural gas needs.
Today the Yetagun field is operated by
Malaysia's Petronas along with MOGE, Japan's Nippon Oil and PTT-EP.
The gas is piped onshore where it links to the Yadana pipeline.
Gas from the Shwe field is to come on line in 2009. China and
India have been in strong contention over the Shwe gas field reserves.
India loses, China wins
This past summer Myanmar signed a memorandum
of understanding with PetroChina to supply large volumes of natural
gas from reserves of the Shwe gasfield in the Bay of Bengal. The
contract runs for 30 years. India was the main loser. Myanmar
had earlier given India a major stake in two offshore blocks to
develop gas to have been transmitted via pipeline through Bangladesh
to India's energy-hungry economy. Political bickering between
India and Bangladesh brought the Indian plans to a standstill.
China took advantage of the stalemate.
It simply trumped India with an offer to invest billions in building
a strategic China-Myanmar oil and gas pipeline across Myanmar
from Myanmar's deepwater port at Sittwe in the Bay of Bengal to
Kunming in China's Yunnan province, a stretch of more than 2,300
kilometers. China plans an oil refinery in Kumming as well.
What the Myanmar-China pipelines will
allow is routing of oil and gas from Africa (Sudan among other
sources) and the Middle East (Iran, Saudi Arabia) without depending
on the vulnerable chokepoint of the Malacca Strait. Myanmar becomes
China's "bridge" linking Bangladesh and countries westward
to the China mainland independent of any possible future moves
by Washington to control the strait.
India's dangerous alliance shift
It's no wonder that China is taking such
precautions. Ever since the Bush administration decided in 2005
to recruit India to the Pentagon's "New Framework for US-India
Defense Relations", India has been pushed into a strategic
alliance with Washington in order to counter China in Asia.
In an October 2002 Pentagon report, "The
Indo-US Military Relationship", the Office of Net Assessments
stated the reason for the defense alliance would be to have a
"capable partner" who can take on "more responsibility
for low-end operations" in Asia, provide new training opportunities
and "ultimately provide basing and access for US power projection".
Washington is also quietly negotiating a base on Indian territory,
a severe violation of India's traditional non-aligned status.
Power projection against whom? China,
As well, the Bush administration has offered
India a deal to lift its 30-year nuclear sanctions and to sell
advanced US nuclear technology, legitimizing India's open violation
of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. At the same time Washington
accuses Iran of violating same, an exercise in political hypocrisy
to say the least.
Notably, just as the saffron-robed monks
of Myanmar took to the streets, the Pentagon opened US-Indian
joint naval exercises, "Malabar 07", along with armed
forces from Australia, Japan and Singapore. The US showed the
awesome muscle of its 7th Fleet, deploying the aircraft carriers
USS Nimitz and USS Kitty Hawk, guided missile cruisers USS Cowpens
and USS Princeton, and no less than five guided missile destroyers.
US-backed regime change in Myanmar together
with Washington's growing military power projection via India
and other allies in the region is clearly a factor in Beijing's
policy vis-a-vis Myanmar's present military junta. As is often
the case these days, from Darfur to Caracas to Yangon, the rallying
call of Washington for democracy ought to be taken with a large
grain of salt.
F William Engdahl is the author of A Century
of War: Anglo-American Oil Politics and the New World Order, Pluto
Press Ltd. Further articles can be found at his website, www.engdahl.oilgeopolitics.net.