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Internally displaced Rohingya residents of a camp near Sittwe carrying vital supplies of rice and cooking oil. Photo: Mathias Eick, EU/ECHO, Rakhine State, Burma, September 2013.
Internally displaced Rohingya residents of a camp near Sittwe carrying vital supplies of rice and cooking oil. Photo: Mathias Eick, EU/ECHO, Rakhine State, Burma, September 2013.
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Genocide: Burma's Rohingya sacrificed in global scramble for oil and gas

Nafeez Ahmed

13th November 2015

As Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy takes a strong lead in Burma's elections, Nafeez Ahmed warns that the military will remain the real power in the land. And as UK, EU, US, Chinese and Gulf state energy corporations compete to exploit Burma's hydrocarbons, don't expect them to denounce the ongoing genocide of the Rohingya, and anyone else in the way of their oil and gas infrastructure.

It is no coincidence that the areas of the pipeline passing through Myanmar's Shan and Rakhine states have involved frequent clashes between secessionists and government forces, including ethnically cleansing the Rohingya coastal communities.

Burma's Muslim minority is a casualty of a geopolitical tug of war between the West and China to dominate Asia

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has already emerged as a clear winner in the election, and is on track to win nearly 90% of the votes in the historic elections that just took place in Burma - renamed by the military regime to 'Myanmar'.

EU observers have poured gushing praise on the "transparency" and "credibility" of the elections - despite simultaneously admitting they are not "truly genuine" due to the denial of voting rights to Burma's Rohingya Muslim minority, who make up 1.3 million of the Burmese population.

Last October, the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) at Queen Mary University in London found that the Rohingya, who reside largely in Rakhine state, face "the final stages of a genocidal process". Leaked government documents show that plans to inflict "mass annihilation" have been prepared at the highest levels.

The ISCI report catalogues the rape, torture, massacres, arbitrary detention, land theft and ghettoisation perpetrated as part of "a longer-term strategy by the state to isolate, weaken and eliminate the group."

Overall, four million Burmese have been denied voting rights. Overseas Burmese workers cannot register, voter lists are riddled with errors, and polling has been cancelled in areas of ethnic violence. A quarter of all parliamentary seats are reserved for the military.

Since 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) has repeatedly bowed to government authority, refusing to criticise military aggression against Christian Kachin rebels, amidst allegations of internal election rigging to prevent thousands of younger NLD members from voting.

"She has in some ways been co-opted by the government, which is led by a lot of former generals", observed Trevor Wilson, former Australian Ambassador to Burma.

Guy Horton, 'the man who uncovered the truth about Burma' and a friend of Aung San Suu Kyi's late husband Michael Aris, has slammed the NLD's compromises with the junta for providing an "apparently legitimate democratic fig leaf for the illegitimate military controlled government and the whole grotesquely rigged political transition."

More recently he warned: "If, as seems probable, her party becomes the largest in the Parliament, it is likely to be the prisoner of the 2008 Constitution and have to kow tow to Buddhist nationalism and fundamentalism. The deputy leader of the NLD reportedly prostrated himself before Wirathu recently."

Blinded by hydrocarbons

US and British 'democracy promoters' play the lead role in defending Burma. In May, the US State Department published its Investment Climate Statement for Burma, intended to "help US investors make informed investment decisions."

The report highlights "the international business community's interest in Burma and the unique opportunities the country presents - including a rich natural resources base, a large market potential, a young labour force and a strategic location between India, China and the countries that make up the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN)."

The State Department report focuses on the need for Burma to continue neoliberal "economic reforms" to open up the country to foreign investors.

Rather than acknowledging the junta's culpability, the document makes passing reference to "political violence" characterised neutrally as "anti-government insurgent activity in various locations" and "inter-communal violence ... between Buddhists and Muslims."

A report by the UK government's department for Trade and Investment (UKTI) was similarly breathless: "Burma is estimated to possess 3.2 billion barrels of oil and 18 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas reserves... Its unproven resources may be vastly greater." These resources make Burma "among the world's top fifth nations in terms of its proven reserves."

According to the Economist "foreign oil experts" believe "Myanmar's fields could be on a par with Britain's North Sea before it was exploited, or Brazil's reserves now."

US, British, Australian and European oil majors have been awarded contracts by the junta, including BG Group and Ophir (UK); Shell (UK-Netherlands); Statoil (Norway); Chevron and Conoco Phillips (US); Woodside (Australia); Eni (Italy) and Total (France).

Many of these contracts - particularly those involving Chevron, Ophir, Woodside, and Eni - are production-sharing initiatives in the Rakhine basin, just off the coast of the Rakhine state where local Rohingya Muslims face the prospect of extinction.

But the West's eagerness to open up access to Burma's untapped energy resources is also about China. "Drawing Burma out of China's sphere of influence was touted in Washington as a great diplomatic boon for the US pivot to Asia", explains Hunter Marsten, a former State Department official based in Rangoon, Burma.

"The US aims to inhibit China's expanding regional influence... to preserve the status quo security architecture put in place by the US and Europe." That is "why the United States has refrained from criticising Burma's shortcomings... The US needs a 'good enough' democratic partner in Burma to provide a bulwark on China's strategic southern border with India".

Gulf states join in the frenzy as Rohingya Muslims are slaughtered

Ramping up Western fossil fuel investments in Burma is therefore integral to the wider strategy of containing Chinese influence. The China-Burma pipeline completed last year provides the first overland access route to China for oil and gas shipments from the Middle East. It is capable of carrying a whopping 0.5% of global oil demand.

Saudi Arabia is a major player in the Burma pipeline. In 2011, the Saudi's Aramco signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to supply China 200,000 barrels of crude a day through the China-Burma pipeline. In return, China would help develop Saudi's Yanbu refinery on the Red Sea coast.

A parallel gas pipeline has since 2014 transported four billion cubic metres of methane from Burma and Qatar to China via the seaport of Kyaukpyu in Rakhine. The latter has "become an operational hub for multi-billion dollar investments by Daewoo International, which has offshore gas concessions, and China National Petroleum Co. [CNPC]", according to Simon Montlake, Forbes' Beijing bureau chief. Daewoo, a South Korean firm, is operating in Kyaukpya in partnership with Australia's Woodside.

It is no coincidence that the areas of the pipeline passing through Burma's Shan and Rakhine states have involved frequent clashes between secessionists and government forces, crushing efforts to challenge the finality of central control of these energy transshipment routes.

This includes ethnically cleansing the Rohingya coastal communities in Kyaukpyu, Rakhine. "Much of the attention has been on the pipeline's diagonal path across Burma and the role of the military in securing it", reports Forbes. "But there are also concerns about the impact on Kyaukpyu and other coastal areas."

Montlake refers to the expulsion of the Rohingya from the coastal town in October 2012. Satellite imagery published by Human Rights Watch "identifies the torched community as being on the eastern shore, near to the industrial zones where CPNC and Daewoo are invested."

According to Anne Gillman of the US Department of Commerce's International Trade Administration, like the West, the Gulf regimes see Burma as a key economic entry point into Asia. They are interested in "using land in Myanmar for food security", he says. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is keen to export its "agricultural chemicals and fertilisers industry" to Burma.

Qatar's Ooredoo has already invested billions of dollars in Burma's telecom infrastructure. And since October 2012 - while Kyaukpyu's Rohingya quarter was being razed to the ground - Qatar Airways rewarded Burma by opening direct flights from Doha to Yangon.

That year, UAE conglomerate al-Marwan also began seeking contracts "to build road infrastructure and hotels and also set up trade and marine services in the country."

Death by growth

Sustained economic growth, now around 8.5%, has come at a price paid by increasingly disenfranchised and expropriated agricultural workers - about half the population.

Economic reforms have "driven displacement, human rights abuses and social unrest that have called the country's democratic transition into question", writes David Baulk in Foreign Policy.

In simpler terms, growth is not trickling down, but exploiting the majority on behalf of the few, translating into ethno-religious tensions.

Meanwhile, the scramble for Burma's resources has granted the junta the international impunity it craves to accelerate the genocide of the Rohinga.



Nafeez Ahmed PhD is an investigative journalist, international security scholar and bestselling author who tracks what he calls the 'crisis of civilization.' He is a winner of the Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his Guardian reporting on the intersection of global ecological, energy and economic crises with regional geopolitics and conflicts. He has also written for The Independent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, Prospect, New Statesman, Le Monde diplomatique, New Internationalist. His work on the root causes and covert operations linked to international terrorism officially contributed to the 9/11 Commission and the 7/7 Coroner's Inquest.

This article was originally published on Middle East Eye and is republished by kind permission of the author.

Editor's note: the photograph originally used with this article appears to have been mislabelled and is of uncertain provenance. It has therefore been removed and replaced. Apologies for any confusion caused.


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