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Gas Deal Wins Kudos, But Activists Warn of Rights Abuses

Ranjit Devraj
From Inter Press Service
January 18, 2005
link to this article.

While a new trilateral deal for Burma to export natural gas to India through Bangladesh augurs well economically for New Delhi, activists warned that the Burmese military regime could implement the project using forced labour.

Last Thursday, in what was seen as a major breakthrough in regional cooperation, India, Burma and Bangladesh announced in a joint-statement that they would participate in the construction of a gas pipeline from Burma's Shwe natural gas field, in the Gulf of Bengal, which would benefit all three countries.

''The government of Burma agrees to export natural gas to India by pipeline through the territory of Bangladesh and India to be operated by an international consortium as may be agreed upon by the parties concerned,'' said the joint-statement released in the Burmese capital Rangoon.

India's Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas Mani Shankar Aiyar explained that the deal allowed flexibility for natural gas to be both injected and siphoned out of the pipeline.

Besides Burma, he said, gas from fields in Bangladesh and in India's north-eastern state of Tripura could carried in the pipeline.

But as Aiyar toasted the deal with Bangaldesh's Minister for Energy and Mineral Resources A.K.H. Mosharraf Hossain and Burma's Energy Minister Brigadier General Luln Thi, the Shwe Gas Campaign Committee (India), led by Burmese dissidents, called on the Indian government to postpone the project.

''We want India to see the suffering that the project will cause to the people of Burma,'' said the statement issued by the committee.

''It's not that we do not want India to have a relationship with Burma but we are simply asking India to wait until Burma gains democracy,'' it added.

According to the group, Burma will implement the project using forced labour, forced relocation and a large military deployment to protect the gas pipeline.

'' This will result in rape and other human rights violations,'' said the dissidents.

The U.S.-based environmental lobby group Earth Rights International (ERI) pointed out in a report last August that there were an alarming number of similarities between the Yadana pipeline and the proposed Shwe pipeline.

''Forced labour and human rights abuses are still an ongoing problem throughout Burma, and it can be assumed that these violations will continue at any major development project site,'' said ERI.

Last December, a ground-breaking settlement was reached between the energy giant Unocal and Burmese villagers in connection with the Yadana gas pipeline project.

The settlement reached in a U.S. court will compensate 14 Burmese villagers who first sued Unocal in 1996, claiming it should be held liable for enforced labour, murder and rape allegedly carried out by the Burmese military during the construction of the 1.2 billion U.S. dollar Yadana pipeline in the country.

The action was brought against Unocal, which is based at El Segundo in California, on the grounds that it benefited from the Burmese government's activity even if it did not endorse it. Legal experts now point out that the settlement may have major ramifications for other multinationals operating in Burma.

Presently, the Shwe pipeline consortium is comprised of four entities. Daewoo International (60 percent stake) and the Korean Gas Corporation (10 percent) are both incorporated in South Korea, while India is represented by the state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), Videsh Ltd and the Gas Authority of India Ltd (all having at total of a 30 percent stake).

On June 5, last year, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) announced that it planned to re-instate sanctions against Burma should the regime fail to make significant progress towards eradicating the use of forced labour.

The regime in Burma - officially known as Myanmar - seized power in a 1962 coup. International human rights groups point out that in the absence of significant political and institutional reforms, the end to forced labour is unlikely.

More than anything, India views Burma as a reliable alternative source of energy for its power-hungry industries.

According to minister Aiyar, India's demand for gas would reach 400 million standard cubic meters per day by the year 2025 necessitating a constant search for energy sources.

The Shwe natural gas pipeline deal contrasts with a decade-old wrangle over the proposed Indo-Iranian pipeline that must transit through Pakistan - a country with which India has been having a long-standing dispute over the territory of Kashmir.

Aiyar has said that the Indo-Iranian pipeline, expected to cost four billion U.S. dollars and also earn Pakistan 500 million U.S. dollars annually in transit fees, could work only as part of an overall improvement of economic ties between the South Asian neighbours.

Fears expressed by New Delhi that the pipeline could be held hostage by political instability in the region was borne out last week when tribals sabotaged Pakistan's key Sui gas fields in the Baluchistan province crippling industrial activity and necessitating supply cuts for domestic user in the port city of Karachi.

In terms of risk, therefore, India's investment in Burma's Shwe gas pipeline presents little problems.

According to Prof. Ganganath Jha, a South-east Asia expert at the New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University, the investment in Burma is integral to India's policy of shifting attention from the oil-rich, but strife-ridden countries of the Middle East to the stable economies of South-east Asia that also happen to be richly endowed with natural resources.

''Projects like the gas pipeline from Myanmar will undoubtedly go a long way in opening up the eastern region and help landlocked countries like Nepal and Bhutan and improve conditions in India's long-neglected north-east,'' Jha told IPS.

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