Friday, March 20, 2009

The deadly new great game in Asia

From TIME Magazine:

Last year, the Chinese came. The villagers living in western Burma's remote Arakan state couldn't quite fathom what the Chinese told them, that below their rice fields might lie a vast reserve of oil. For three months the Chinese drilled the earth near the muddy Kaladan River in search of black gold. Then, just as suddenly, they left. In December, the Indians arrived.

Through Burmese intermediaries, they took the village's paddies as their own, depriving locals of their main source of income. Compensation was promised, villagers tell me, but none has been paid so far. So the impoverished residents of Mee Laung Yaw village, who lack electricity and eat eggplant curry as a poor substitute for meat, spend their days gazing at their expropriated fields, now fenced in and dominated by an oil-exploration tower that dwarfs their bamboo shacks. Several villagers took lowly construction jobs on the site but they were never paid so they've stopped showing up for work. "I hope they don't find any oil," says village chief Aye Thein Tun. "Because even if they do, none of it will come to us. It will just go to other countries."

The Western dialogue over what to do about Burma's repressive military regime is often framed as a single dilemma: whether or not to impose international sanctions. The debate is polarizing. The pro-sanctions crowd claims the moral high ground, deploring the enrichment of a clutch of ethnocentric Burmese generals whose impulses are most brutal against the roughly 40% of the population that, like the villages of Arakan state, is composed of ethnic minorities.

The engagement side preaches practicality, arguing that some investment will trickle down to the populace and that cultural exchange is better than imposed isolationism. When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Asia on her inaugural foreign trip last month, she weighed in on the Burma question, acknowledging: "Clearly the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn't influenced the Burmese junta ... [which is] impervious to influence from anyone."

The truth about Burma, renamed as Myanmar by its generals, is that the sanctions debate is immaterial. While American and European foreign policy thinkers ponder how to financially strangle an army government that has ruled since 1962, Burma's regional neighbors are embarking on a new Great Game, scrambling to outdo each other for access to this resource-rich land. "Sanctions don't work if most countries ignore them," says Naw La, an exiled environmentalist with the Kachin Development Networking Group in Thailand. "The military is selling our natural heritage without any concern for our people."

The Mosquito Coast
In return for oil, natural gas, timber, hydropower, gemstones, cash crops and a periodic table's worth of minerals, countries like China, India, Thailand, Malaysia and South Korea are propping up — and massively enriching — Burma's top brass. In the first nine months of 2008, foreign investment in Burma almost doubled year on year to nearly $1 billion, according to government figures that don't even take into account significant underground economic activity.

Burma today is estimated to produce 90% of the world's rubies by value, 80% of its teak, and is home to one of Asia's biggest oil and natural-gas reserves. The country's jade is the world's finest, and its largely untouched rivers promise plentiful hydropower for its neighbors. "Multinationals are getting rich off Burma, and so is the military regime," says Ka Hsaw Wa, co-founder of EarthRights International, an NGO that sued U.S. energy giant Unocal, which eventually provided out-of-court compensation to villagers who are believed to have toiled as slave labor for the Yadana gas pipeline from southern Burma to Thailand. "It is the local people who are suffering and dying," says Ka Hsaw Wa.

But as resource-hungry countries cozy up to the junta, they are discovering that Burma's natural wealth is most bountiful in areas where ethnic minorities simmer under the rule of the ethnic Burmese generals. Officially, the Burmese junta recognizes that the country is a union of at least 135 distinct groups. Yet the top ranks of the military are practically devoid of any non-Burmese presence. Army persecution of Burma's diverse tribes has festered for decades, and the proliferation of junta-controlled mines and concessions in the minority regions only exacerbates the tensions.

Hundreds of thousands of ethnic villagers have been forced to relocate or have been conscripted into chain gangs, according to human-rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Even when operations begin, paid jobs land disproportionately in the hands of ethnic Burmese migrants, not those of local minorities. A new report by the Geneva-based International Displacement Monitoring Center estimates that in eastern Burma alone nearly half a million minority people have been displaced.

The British, trying to hold together an ethnic patchwork of a colony, knew too well the perils of Burma's tribal politics. They resorted to divide-and-conquer schemes, much as the current military regime has done. Intense negotiations by the junta led to many ethnic insurgencies laying down their guns in the 1980s and '90s — and opened up a vast territory for resource exploitation. But as the inequities between the Burmese majority and the tribal groups — the Arakanese, the Shan, the Kachin, the Karen, the Mon, the Wa and the Chin, to name a few — yawns ever wider, the chance of renewed armed conflict grows stronger. "To the military, we [ethnic minorities] are like mosquitoes," says a young Arakanese Buddhist monk, who participated in the crushed antigovernment uprising of September 2007 and chafes at Burmese discrimination against his people. "We buzz in their ear, and they slap at us and don't care if they kill us." But, he adds, "there are many mosquitoes." In the end, it may be the foreign participants in this new Great Game, unschooled in how to navigate ethnic complexities, who will get bitten.

Minority Report
Arakan's capital, Sittwe, is a sleepy port near the Bay of Bengal where the pace of life inches along at the speed of a pedicab. But nearby, the rush for oil and gas is intense; last year, Russian, Thai and Vietnamese companies signed exploration deals with the junta. In late December, a consortium of four foreign companies, led by South Korea's Daewoo, inked an agreement with the junta and China National Petroleum Corp. to extract natural gas from Arakan's offshore Shwe fields and pipe it northeast through Burma to China's Yunnan province.

The pipeline, along with a plan for a new deepwater port in Arakan where ships laden with Middle Eastern oil can dock and disgorge their valuable cargo, gives China an alternative to the expensive and sometimes dangerous Strait of Malacca by directly supplying energy to its landlocked west. The Shwe project is Burma's largest ever foreign-investment commitment. (The second largest is the Yadana pipeline to Thailand.) Though Arakan sits on the country's biggest oil and natural-gas fields, Sittwe only gets three hours of electricity a day. The town boasts an "e-library" located in a government building, but all the computers sit unused because there is no power during office hours.

When I flew on a wheezing Myanma Airways plane to Sittwe, a squad of military officers with pistols on their hips boarded the flight. As the plane climbed into the air, two men in uniform stood in the aisle and unrolled a large, laminated map that showed the Shwe pipeline route in red. Yet the general public in Arakan has not been told what many suspected and what the map I saw indicated: that the pipeline, on which construction is scheduled to begin this year, will travel through populous areas and will likely result in extensive village relocations. (Both Daewoo and the Indian company exploring for oil in Arakan did not respond to Time's requests for comment.) For locals, reporting what I had seen on the plane could land them in a labor camp for compromising national security.

The week before I arrived, several Arakanese with vaguely political backgrounds were rounded up by the police and haven't been seen since. "They close our ears and they close our mouths," says an Arakanese political dissident, noting the heavy Burmese security presence that can make even casual conversation at a teahouse fraught. "And now, they are taking our treasures, our oil and gas. What do we get in return? Nothing."

The inequity is straining the network of fragile cease-fires in tribal areas. "We have sent many letters registering our complaints to the government, but we haven't heard back," says Colonel Gun Maw. Not hearing back from the Burmese junta is something to which the spokesman for the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) is accustomed. An ethnically based movement in northern Burma's Kachin state, the KIO waged a long insurgency against the Burmese regime before signing a peace treaty in 1994. Most Kachin are Christian, and they believe their faith makes them particularly vulnerable to persecution by the exclusively Buddhist junta.

In a complicated arrangement, the KIO controls some territory on Kachin's border with China. Chinese trucks that rumble through KIO turf pay taxes on the jade, gold and timber they're carrying, and KIO officials say the Chinese generally pay up, lest instability infect the area. "China wants Burma as a buffer state," says Gun Maw. "It wants Burma to be secure — so China will be secure."

Today, the KIO is waging an information campaign on a series of seven planned dams in Kachin, which will flood hundreds of villages and could threaten many others because the region's frequent seismic activity could trigger reservoir floods. (Two previously built dams in Kachin were rendered useless after breaking, and nearby villagers, who never received any electricity, were killed by the rush of water.) The dams, which are slated to generate seven times Burma's entire current electricity capacity, are being jointly developed by state-owned Chinese companies and a Burmese firm, Asia World, whose managing director was the target of U.S. sanctions last year.

China will receive most — if not all — the generated power, leaving the Kachin people literally in the dark. The largest dam will be at Myitsone, where two rivers meet to become the mighty Irrawaddy. Chinese engineers and ethnic Burmese workers are already on-site. "All we can do is pray that the dam doesn't get built," says Nlam Brang Nu, the Baptist pastor of Tang Hpre village, which will be inundated when Myitsone is completed. "It is in God's hands."

Cycle of Depression
The Chinese are learning that the Kachin, like other ethnic groups in Burma, may not be willing to turn the other cheek much longer. Last year, armed KIO soldiers showed up at a pair of dam sites staffed by Chinese workers and demanded work cease until the Chinese paid them taxes.

The projects are located in an area nominally under KIO control, but the former rebels were angry that the dam deal was negotiated directly between the Burmese government and Chinese hydropower firms without their input. (Eventually, the Chinese paid up.) More foreigners could get caught in the cross fire. Next year, Burma's generals will oversee nationwide elections, two decades after they ignored the results of the last polls. But for the cease-fire groups to participate in the balloting, the junta requires them to give up their guns. For many ethnic organizations, the KIO included, that's not acceptable.

Between sips of whiskey chased by Red Bull, a gun runner in the Kachin capital Myitkyina tells me that he's fielding more orders for Chinese-made arms from various ethnic insurgent groups. "We have to defend ourselves," he says. "Otherwise the government will keep taking from us until we have nothing left."

That's the plight of most everyone in Burma, even the ethnic Burmese. Balancing on a narrow bamboo raft in the middle of the Irrawaddy River, ethnic Burmese migrant Aung Tun sifts for specks of gold. Over the past decade, Chinese demand for gold has skyrocketed, and thousands of ethnic Burmese have moved to Kachin to pan for the mineral, as well as mine jade. But for the right to float his raft on the river, Aung Tun must pay fees to the Burmese government, the Burmese police and the KIO. If the specks of gold add up, he can make the payments. Otherwise, Aung Tun goes into debt. If he survives, that is.

During the five years that Aung Tun has panned the Irrawaddy, 25 people have died in his work group, which numbers no more than 40 laborers at one time. Some drowned during storms, while others succumbed to malaria or never came up after diving deep into the river. "The foreigners want gold," he says, squinting for yellow dust in the brown silt. "So we look for it." The equation in Asia's new Great Game is simple — and deadly.

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