India cuts to the chase with Myanmar

Posted in India | 11-Oct-07 | Author: Siddharth Srivastava| Source: Asia Times

Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee.

NEW DELHI - There is international pressure on India not to engage with the military junta in Myanmar that severely cracked down on pro-democracy protestors recently. But it seems New Delhi has other ideas.

Betraying its soft approach towards Myanmar, New Delhi has advised the United Nations Security Council against imposing sanctions, which should only be used as a "last resort", on Myanmar. Instead, India has told the military regime to consider launching a probe into the protests.

Reports have emerged that Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee conveyed India's concerns to his Myanmar counterpart, U Nyan Win, during a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly summit in New York last week.

Mukherjee "suggested that the [Myanmar] government could consider undertaking an inquiry into the recent incidents and the use of force", said a statement issued by the foreign ministry. The minister also hoped the "process of national reconciliation and political reform, initiated by the government of Myanmar, would be taken forward expeditiously".

Such open-ended diplomatic words can mean only one thing: that India does not want to annoy the military junta in any way, while maintaining the decorum of international dismay on the matter.

"Feelers have been sent via diplomatic sources in the West about India's position regarding Myanmar. However, there has been no advisory or official communication that India should withdraw any business relations," a senior foreign ministry official told Asia Times Online.

Mukherjee, during recent visits to Thailand and South Korea, expanded a bit on New Delhi's thinking. He said that India does not have any problems dealing with military regimes as it considers such issues "internal matters". New Delhi has to deal with four military-ruled states in its region - Bangladesh, Pakistan, Thailand and Myanmar. This is apart from communist-ruled China, Mukherjee said.

Publicly, Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown leads Europe's activism, assigning moral responsibility to India and China to influence Myanmar. The United States has talked about sanctions without defining a time frame. Washington has urged India and China to do more to "support the cause of freedom" of the people of Myanmar.

Tom Casey, the US State Department deputy spokesman, said the US "specifically called on India, China and the ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] countries to do more to support the cause of political dialogue and of freedom for the people of Burma [Myanmar]".

The Indian official told Asia Times Online, "New Delhi understands a bit about the hypocrisy in the latest utterances from Europe and the US that will have to back words with action. European subsidiaries and companies continue to invest in Myanmar and have no intentions to withdraw. The Western governments should put pressure on them first."

Indeed, New Delhi is keen to push a pro-Myanmar agenda to leverage energy sources and reduce the influence of China, which has gas projects in the country.

Pulled up by the Prime Minister's Office for allowing China to steal a march in Myanmar, India's Oil Minister, Murli Deora, visited the country at the time of the protests and pledged Indian investments of US$150 million for gas exploration.

India's state-run explorer - Oil and Natural Gas Corp (ONGC) - and its counterpart, the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, signed production-sharing contracts for the development of three deep-water exploration blocks off Myanmar's western Rakhine coast. All three blocks are believed to have good hydrocarbon potential as they are close to shallow water blocks A-1 and A-3 where ONGC is part of a consortium developing a gas find.

Energy-hungry India and China are in competition over the massive Shwe natural gas development project, in which ONGC and India's utility Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) are partners under the majority stakeholder, South Korea's Daewoo.

Irked by delays in implementing the Myanmar-Bangladesh-India pipeline, and with strategic support from China at international forums, Myanmar has inked a memorandum of understanding with PetroChina to supply 6.5 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of gas from Block A of the Shwe gas fields in the Bay of Bengal for over 30 years. PetroChina is the listed subsidiary of China National Petroleum Corporation.

The advent of China as an end-user creates an awkward situation as India will effectively be supplying gas to China, its biggest competitor for oil and gas.

Shwe is expected to generate up to $600 million in revenue every year for Myanmar over the next two decades.

The competition is stiff. Companies from South Korea, Thailand and US energy giant Chevron are looking to exploit Myanmar's natural resources. In recent statements following the unrest, Daewoo said it has no plans to change investments. "Politics is politics. Economics is economics," a spokesperson said.

France's Total and Malaysia's Petronas currently pump gas from Myanmar through a pipeline to Thailand, which takes the bulk of Myanmar's gas output. Total has defended its presence in Myanmar, saying oil and gas reserves are not necessarily located in democracies.

This week, authorities in Belgium moved to reopen a case brought by Myanmar refugees alleging that Total was involved in crimes against humanity in the country. (See France's Total mired in Myanmar Asia Times Online, October 4, 2007.) New York-based Human Rights Watch has called on firms invested in Myanmar to use their influence on the military regime to end its abuses.

London-based Amnesty International has said that China is the main source of arms for Myanmar, followed by India, Serbia, Russia, Ukraine and other countries, and urged them to stop weapons supplies. Amnesty recently reported that India plans to sell military helicopters to Myanmar in a move that could undermine a European Union arms embargo.

But Myanmar's proven gas reserves of 19 tcf at the end of 2006 are proving to be very difficult to resist. Recently, PTT Exploration and Production International Limited of Thailand found natural gas in its Block M-9 offshore concession, indicating a reserve of 8 tcf, official Myanmar media reports said.

This year, Indian intelligence agencies cautioned New Delhi about the possible shutout of Indian interests by Russian and Chinese oil firms in Myanmar.

Clearly, fast-developing India has more pressing issues to tackle than backing ideals of democracy in Myanmar.

This is especially so when reports say that Iran and Pakistan have decided to move ahead with a gas pipeline without the participation of India. New Delhi, it is widely believed, has been putting off negotiations on the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline due to pressure from Washington. The US does not want India to deal with Tehran due to the latter's independent nuclear program.

"We prefer it [IPI] to be a tripartite deal, but if it does not happen we will sign it with the Pakistanis," caretaker Iranian Oil Minister Gholam Hossein Nozari recently told reporters.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.

Siddharth Srivastava is WSN Editor India.