Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Oil, Gas and Dharma

She spent her 64th birthday in jail.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s previous birthdays have not been much better; the Burmese democracy icon was under house confinement.
On June 19, her lawyer Nyan Win sent a chocolate cake, an apple cake, three bouquets of orchids and 50 lunch boxes of biryani to Rangoon’s infamous Insein Prison, hoping that the Nobel Laureate would be able to share this with her jailors. Dr Win Naing, a senior member of her National League for Democracy (NLD) told the media: “She will invite doctors who care for her, some guards and others to her party."
Many celebrities have raised their voices in her favour.
Hollywood stars Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Madonna or footballer David Beckham and a few Nobel laureates asked the military junta to release Suu Kyi.
Beatle Paul McCartney was one of the thousands who wrote a 64-word text for her: “Aung San Suu Kyi is an inspiration to her country and the rest of the world. I truly admire her infallible resolve and her determination to stand up for what she believes in. It is vital that Aung San Suu Kyi is released so that she can govern the people who elected her and give Burma back the freedom we all take for granted.”
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that she would raise the Burmese leader’s case with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
As she was due to be released in May after nearly twenty years incommunicado, Suu Kyi was charged with breaching the terms of her house arrest when an American national, John Yettaw swam to her lakeside house and stayed two nights in her home.
If found guilty, she faces up to five years in prison.
The trial had mostly been conducted in camera and the media was prevented from speaking to her lawyers.
Leandro Despouy, UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers says: “So far, the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi and her aides has been marred by flagrant violations of substantive and procedural rights”.
The U.N. working group on arbitrary detention had already issued an advisory ruling a year ago that the Nobel laureate's continued house arrest was arbitrary.
Reading this, one does not understand why world pressure is unable to make the junta relent and release the Nobel Peace Price Laureate.
Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Burma or Myanmar, as the junta calls India’s neighbour today, has oil and gas. It makes a difference.
When the US brought sanctions against the junta in 1997, the US Executive Order permitted the U.S. energy company Unocal to remain in the country. Unocal was subsequently purchased by Chevron which is still very much involved in Suu Kyi’s country.
It was reported by The Financial Times that a document prepared by the International Monetary Fund indicted the junta which used an accounting trick to keep $3.5 billion from the proceeds of the Unocal/Chevron natural gas pipeline off its account books. The finger immediately pointed towards the generals: had they simply pocketed the money or kept it in some fiscal paradise for bad days. The Financial Times alleged that that the ‘earnings’ of the junta were equivalent to 57% of Burma’s state budget. One now understands better the reluctance of the generals to change the ‘status quo’.
Will President Obama who condemned the junta for arresting Suu Kyi, put his nose into the oil or gas deals of the US companies? Probably not! The Americans are not the only ones involved.
The French company Total is very present there. While glamourous Bernard Koucher, the French Foreign Minister writes an Op-Ed in The New York Times (on June 12) fustigating the junta, business continues as usual. Kouchner writes: “Freedom from fear” resounds more than ever as a call for help at a time when the Burmese junta has initiated proceedings against her that are as absurd as they are unjustified. We are not fooled.”
Sounds good, isn’t it? He continues: “The thoughts of all those who admire and support her are with the ‘Lady of Yangon’, a woman full of dignity and finesse, energy and calm, intelligence and compassion.”
In 2003, the same Bernard Kouchner was commissioned by Total (as an independent consultant) to write a report on the company’s involvement in Burma. He had suggested that Total need not leave the country, but “must come out clearly in favour of democracy”.
Since then, Total has been very much involved with the oil and gas scene in Burma.
Here lies the hypocrisy lies. It is why there is little chance of any western (or Asian) pressure succeeding in getting Suu Kyi released.
As prosaically mentioned on Total’s website: “Unfortunately, the world’s oil and gas reserves are not necessarily located in democracies, as a glance at a map shows.”
Christophe de Margerie, Total’s CEO gave his group’s view in an article published by the French newspaper Le Monde on June 1: “We have heard your heartfelt cry and share your distress over the imprisonment in Rangoon of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. I have met her twice, and believe me when I say that her plight concerns me personally. …We use our “influence” whenever we can, but it is limited in Burma.”
And now the most important: “We can say without exaggeration that if Total were to withdraw from Myanmar, the companies that would rush to take our place would be far less concerned with upholding human rights and ensuring decent working conditions for employees. Their presence would in all likelihood increase, rather than shrink, the regime’s revenues.”
It clearly means: “if we go, China will come; they are worse than us.” Though this position is totally amoral, it makes a point. In any case, China is already there. Beijing has begun laying a gigantic 1,100 km long gas and oil pipeline to Myanmar last September. The Xinhua news agency stated that the oil pipeline could reduce the transport route by 1,200 km as compared to ocean shipping. It will also reduce China's reliance on the Straits of Malacca for oil import, with the risks involved.
It is only one of the hundreds of projects (such construction of hydroelectric dams) in which China is involved in Burma. One understands the clout of the Middle Kingdom which still promotes its ‘peaceful rise’ (one has recently witnessed the meaning of Beijing’s peaceful support in Sri Lanka’s war against the LTTE).

Where is India in this picture?
In 2007, India lost to China a 30-year gas concession from the junta. India will keep loosing to China, its diplomacy does not have the teeth of a sharky China. At the same time, India’s foreign policy has lost its moral foundation.
Suu Kyi’s family was close to India’s First Family. When Suu Kyi’ father was assassinated Nehru wrote: “I mourn Aung San, friend and comrade, who even in his youth had become the architect of Burmese freedom.” Young Suu Kyi was then two years old.
A few years later, in the early 1960’s, her mother Daw Khin Kyi was appointed Burma's ambassador to India. Suu Kyi, a young girl of fifteen with long thick plaits, joined Lady Sri Ram College in Delhi. She knew Indira and her sons well.
Today, everyone has forgotten her, one could say for a few drops of oil more, but it is not even true. And what about her old collegemates in LSR? Several of them are today in positions of influence, but they have also forgotten her. It is the tragedy of a world running on oil, not on Dharma.

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