Chokepoint! The geopolitical stakes of the Saffron Revolution
By F. William Engdahl
Online Journal Guest Writer
Oct 15, 2007, 01:12
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 colony.
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 Burma enjoys one of the
world�s lowest general living standards. Partly as a result of the
ill-conceived 100 percent to 500 percent 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
percent. Ironically, the demand to establish �market� energy prices came from
the IMF and World Bank.
The UN estimates the population of some 50 million
inhabitants spends up to 70 percent 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
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 Condi 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 facts help.
Behind the recent CNN news pictures of streams of
saffron-robed Buddhist Monks marching in the streets of the former capital city
Rangoon (Yangon) in Myanmar�the US government still prefers to call it by the
British colonial name, Burma�calling for more democracy, is a battle of major
The major actors
The tragedy of Burma, 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 which has been 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.
Burma�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 Buddhists in saffron,
Internet blogs, mobile SMS links between protest groups, well-organized protest
cells which disperse and reform. CNN made the blunder during a September
broadcast of mentioning the active presence of the NED behind the protests in
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. 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, 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 USA, before being sent back to organize inside Myanmar. The USA�s NED
admits to funding key opposition media including the New Era Journal, Irrawaddy
and the Democratic Voice of Burma
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 Burma 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 Burma 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 democracy 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 percent 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.
Daily 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
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
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 drive 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 Ocean.
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. Alone Yadana has an estimated gas reserve of more than 5 trillion cubic
feet with 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
NGO pressure. Malaysia�s Petronas bought Premier�s 27 percent stake. By 2004
Myanmar was exporting Yadana gas via pipeline to Thailand worth annually $1
billion 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 percent. 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 the French
ElfTotal. Yadana supplies some 20 percent of Thai natural gas needs.
Today the Yetagun
field is operated by Malaysia�s Petronas along with MOGE and 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 online beginning 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
advantage of the stalemate. China 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.
Myanmar-China pipelines will allow is routing of oil and gas from Africa (Sudan
among other sources) and the Middle East (Iran, Saudi Arabia) independent of
dependence 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
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.
October 2002 Pentagon report, �The
Indo-US Military Relationship,� the Office of Net Assessments stated the
reason for the India-USA 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.
projection against whom? China, perhaps?
the Bush administration has offered India 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.
just as the Saffron-robed monks of Myanmar took to the streets, the Pentagon
opened joint 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.
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-�-vis Myanmar�s present military junta. As is often the
case these days, from Darfur to Caracas to Rangoon, the rallying call of
Washington for democracy ought to be taken with at least a grain of good salt.
F. William Engdahl is the author of "A Century of
War: Anglo-American Oil Politics and the New World Order," Pluto Press Ltd.. To contact by
Further articles can be found at his website, www.engdahl.oilgeopolitics.net.
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