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Belgium to reopen rights probe on Total in Myanmar

From Reuters
April 15, 2005
link to this article.

Belgium is set to reopen an investigation into alleged crimes against humanity committed by French oil giant Total in Myanmar following a court ruling, the plaintiff's lawyer said on Thursday.

The probe is the first to involve a company rather than an individual under a controversial human rights law claiming universal jurisdiction that has caused Belgium diplomatic grief, especially with the United States.

A magistrate opened the investigation in 2002 after four political refugees filed a lawsuit against Total, accusing it of supporting Myanmar's military junta.

The refugees also sued Total Chief Executive Thierry Desmaret and another executive of complicity in the torture and forced labour of workers who were building a pipeline in the country, formerly known as Burma.

But the investigation was later suspended pending a court ruling on whether a refugee had the same right as a Belgian citizen to use the law, which empowers courts to try perpetrators of these crimes committed anywhere in the world.

On Wednesday, the constitutional court granted that right to one of the refugees, Aung Maw Zin.

"The examining magistrate can start where he left off," the refugee's lawyer, Alexis Deswaef, told Reuters.

Total spokesman Philippe Gateau said the company would review the tribunal's ruling before making a comment.

Total has previously denied funding the military in Myanmar but has said the junta paid soldiers to protect the company's installations and workers. The pipeline was completed in 1998.

Total and other Western multinationals have been under pressure from activists to withdraw from Myanmar, shunned for its human rights record and suppression of political opponents.

The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions on its military government.

In December, U.S. oil company Unocal settled two lawsuits filed by 15 villagers who accused it of ignoring rights abuses by soldiers while the pipeline was being built.

Unocal, recently acquired by ChevronTexaco and a partner of Total in the pipeline project, nevertheless denied any responsibility. Asian companies have quickly stepped in to replace Western firms that have withdrawn, vying for Myanmar's natural wealth in oil and gas, timber, gems and minerals.

Belgium revised the human rights law in 2003 to make it more difficult for foreigners to use it for politically motivated or frivolous lawsuits.

The country had suffered a diplomatic nightmare after scores of lawsuits flooded its courts against Israeli leader Ariel Sharon and U.S. leaders.

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The energy ties that bind India, China

By Ramtanu Maitra
From Asia Times
April 12, 2005
link to this article.

Myanmar newspapers have reported that India will soon start a feasibility study on building a deepsea port in Dawei, in Myanmar's southern Tanintharyi division. Subsequently, the Myanmar Ministry of Transport made clear that the Dawei deepsea-port project stands as one of the priorities among future programs of BIMST-EC, the Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand-Economic Cooperation grouping (which was also joined by Bhutan and Nepal last July).

Earlier, a Myanmar Foreign Affairs Ministry official was quoted by the Myanmar Times saying the shipping route from southern India to Myanmar's deepsea port at Dawei would help reduce the travel time of cargo between India and Thailand that now goes through the Malacca Strait and around the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula to reach Bangkok.

Though Indian External Affairs Minister K Natwar Singh's careful "suggestions" about democracy got all the press play during his recent visit to Myanmar, the Dawei deepsea port and other measures to strengthen India-Myanmar economic relations were no doubt discussed. They are part of a series of important developments taking place just below the radar in Asia that are knitting the region together. As both India and China move to secure their energy and economic futures, they are developing infrastructure that opens significant new potential for economic cooperation and security.

India and China converge on the Andaman Sea
India's interest in and involvement with Southeast Asia has been growing steadily over the past decade, and its concern for development of the Andaman basin has grown accordingly. Last year, an agreement was signed in Yangon by the foreign ministers of India, Myanmar and Thailand to develop transport linkages between the three countries. When complete, the 1,400-kilometer road corridor will be a highway of friendship linking the peoples of South and Southeast Asia.

The planned deepsea port in Dawei, together with the new highway connecting it to Kanchanaburi in Thailand, will no doubt contribute further toward closer trade and commercial links between the two regions.

Dawei, the capital of Tanintharyi division, is on a long, narrow coastal plain (bounded by the Andaman Sea in the east), which runs to Kawthaung, the most southerly point of Myanmar, and which then continues to the Malay Peninsula. Its location affords both economic and security benefits. Building Dawei port has a direct security angle for the Indian navy, which is now in the process of sorting out the technical and financial details of its ambitious Far Eastern Naval Command (FENC) project at Port Blair off the Andaman and Nicobar Islands coast.

FENC will extend the navy's nuclear/strategic combat capability and aid in getting it "blue water" status. Dawei is located across the Andaman Sea on the Myanmar coast almost facing the FENC. India has another, more specifically economic interest in Dawei port. Last January, India reached agreement in principle with Myanmar and Bangladesh on the construction and operation of a pipeline that will bring natural gas from Myanmar to India via Bangladesh, according to reports by the Alexander Gas & Oil company newsletter.

The pipeline, which is likely to cost more than US$1 billion, will carry natural gas from the Shwe fields in Myanmar's Rakhine or Arakan state, through the Indian states of Mizoram and Tripura, then into Bangladesh before finally crossing back into India, all the way up to Kolkata.

Despite an initial positive response from Dhaka, it is likely that Bangladesh will drive a hard bargain to let Myanmar gas flow through its territory to India. Reports indicate that New Delhi has already begun to consider two land routes bypassing Bangladesh. According to one of the proposals, the pipeline can run directly from Myanmar to India through Tripura and Mizoram, circumventing Bangladesh. But two other standby plans involve importing the gas via offshore routes, which will also skirt Bangladesh. The gas could be ferried in ships as compressed or liquefied natural gas.

The Myanmar gas deal: A break for India
The Myanmar gas deal helped to impress on New Delhi that India has no choice but to build up its capabilities to secure the Andaman Sea and transform it into a major conduit for regional economic cooperation.

China, for its part, has been involved over a long period building up infrastructure in Myanmar to gain direct land access to the Southeast Asian nations and the Andaman Sea. China is reportedly engaged in building a deepsea port in Kyaukpyu, in the western coastal Rakhine state. This port would facilitate transit trade through the country to the Andaman Sea, and beyond. One report indicates that the Kyaukpyu port will serve as a transit trade center for goods destined to the port cities of Chittagong (Bangladesh), Yangon (Myanmar) and Kolkata (India). Kyaukpyu, which has a water depth of 20 meters and is capable of accommodating 4,000 TEU (20-foot equivalent units) container vessels, may turn out to be a very useful port.

Importantly, Kyaukpyu also stands at a point on the land route connecting southwestern China's Kunming city with Myanmar's Sittwe. Once the 1,943km Kunming-Kyuakpu road is completed, Myanmar will begin to draw economic benefit from the transit trade as well as job opportunities for Myanmar workers and others in the region. Construction of the seaport and the road link, outlined as Kunming-Mandalay-Kyaukpyu-Sittwe, is under feasibility study, the Myanmar Ministry of Construction was quoted as saying recently.

China's long-term perspective
Beijing's move to get access to the Indian Ocean via Myanmar and the Andaman Sea is based on long-term perspectives. A number of forecasts about China's future make it evident that China will need more and more oil, gas and coal to drive its massive economic engine. But China's east-coast infrastructure is already getting jammed up, and it must develop other inlet points to feed southern and western China.

While developing a deepsea port is a step toward getting energy resources into vast southern China, Beijing is already moving quickly to get direct imports into western China. Some of it will come from Central Asian sources by land. But it is surmised that as China grows economically, it will also need Arabian oil and gas to develop western China.

China is involved in developing Gwadar Port on Pakistan's southwestern Makran coast of Balochistan. Gwadar is almost at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, 72km from Iran, and about 400km from the Strait of Hormuz. The Gwadar project commenced in March 2002, and reports claim that China has contributed a significant amount to the estimated $1.16 billion cost.

In addition, China is also planning to extend the Karakoram Highway to bring oil and gas by road into western China. Since the area is sensitive for geostrategic reasons and India is involved in two major land disputes in the general area - one with Pakistan on the ownership of the state of Jammu and Kashmir and the other with China on the disputed status of Aksai Chin, New Delhi is watching these developments carefully. It is evident that the Chinese military is getting prepared to provide full protection to Gwadar Port, in cooperation with Pakistan.

Significantly, the anti-China crowd in Washington and New Delhi have begun beating the drums that Gwadar Port is a "forward deployment" of the Chinese navy. The claim is that in addition to attack submarines, the Chinese are planning a major listening post in Gwadar (both to monitor US activity in the Persian Gulf and to track shipping in the Indian Ocean). That may well be true, but to protect its vital oil and gas imports, wouldn't any major nation be expected to take similar measures?

The prospect for cooperation
While neither India nor China would be willing to be subjugated by the other, or adopt the other's culture and way of life, there is plenty of evidence that they would like to cooperate to make each other's life a bit easier.

Indeed, this process has already begun in Sudan, where China and India have come together to exploit Sudan's oil and gas resources. Many claim that the cooperation did not exclude competition. Addressing the issue, a high-level adviser in the Energy Research Institute of China's National Development and Reform Commission, Zhao Fengqi, pointed out to Lahore's Daily Times recently that "although there is competition, both sides share a common aim". A similar view was expressed by India's energetic petroleum minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar, who pointed out that both countries "are always pitted against each other to the advantage of the third country".

In Sudan's Greater Nile Project, India and China are partners. India's Oil and Natural Gas Commission Videsh has stakes in Sudan's oil and gas projects, as well as in countries such as Russia, Libya and Australia. China has also gone out and bought stakes in oil and gas fields around the world. China's state-owned oil giant CNPC has invested billions of dollars in projects in countries such as Azerbaijan, Syria, Algeria, Ecuador, Peru, Chad and Kazakhstan.

As both countries reach out to ensure their oil and gas supplies for the future, they will compete and they will cooperate. Myanmar is one country in the region where this convergency of interests may be demonstrated. China's oil and gas from Arabia can come through the Andaman Sea to Kyaukpyu and Dawei, reducing traffic that otherwise must go through the Malacca Strait. Besides the jamming of tankers in the Malacca Strait, which would delay passage of ships and create environmental hazards, the Indian Ocean port-highway connection to China would preclude use of the strait as a choke point to teach China a lesson. India's contribution to minimize the threat to China's oil imports could be a foundation stone on which trust between these two nations can be built.

Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao is in India on a four-day visit. The pro-Washington faction within India's political spectrum and India's not pro-US but down-to-earth pragmatists have already charged that Nepal King Gyanendra's irrational behavior is China-instigated. There is no doubt that such issues will be brought up, as much to slow down, if not undermine, the developing Indo-Chinese relationship as to clarify matters.

Both prime ministers will have to tread through these landmines carefully to lay the foundation for building up a meaningful relationship based on mutual benefit and trust.

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Talks on tri-nation gas pipeline to continue, says Indian minister

From The Independent, Bangladesh
April 8, 2005
link to this article.

Indian Petroleum and Natural Gas Minister Manishankar Aiyer on Friday told the visiting Bangladesh Health and Family Welfare Minister Dr. Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain that he expects to visit Dhaka soon for the Myanmar, Bangladesh, India gas pipeline talks.

He also expressed his hope that the talks among the three countries would continue in Dhaka for the pipeline for supply of gas from Myanmar to India through Bangladesh.

They had the discussions over lunch for Khandaker Mosharraf hosted by Aiyer.

Both the ministers exchanged views on matters of mutual interests and on issues relating to further expanding and strengthening the excellent bilateral relations between Bangladesh and India.

Khandaker Mosharraf said Bangladesh welcomes Indian investment in the country's energy sector and described the proposed investment by the TATA group in steel, fertiliser and power sectors using natural gas as a "positive development."

The health minister is now here at the head of a Bangladesh delegation to attend a high level meeting of partners on maternal, new born and child health.

Bangladesh Acting High Commissioner to India Masud Bin Momin, attended the luncheon meet besides others.

Later, Dr. Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain met former Indian Prime Minister I. K. Gujral and exchanged views on further strengthening the relations between the two countries to the mutual benefits of both the peoples.

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Rangoon proposes a committee meeting regarding tri-nation gas pipeline to be held in Dhaka on April 20-21

From Narinjara News, Bangladesh
April 4, 2005
link to this article.

Burma has proposed that Bangladesh hold a tri-nation committee meeting concerning the Burma-Bangladesh-India gas pipeline in Dhaka on April 20-21, reported a Bangladesh news agency.

The meeting is intended to lead to the signing of a deal enabling the construction of a gas pipeline that would cross from Burma's Arakan state through Bangladeshi territory to India's west Bengal state of Calcutta.

The head of the Burma Energy Planning Department put forward the proposal in a recent letter to the Chairman of Petrobangla, the Bangladesh state-owned hydrocarbon agency.

But Bangladesh has not yet given any reply to Burma regarding the proposed committee meeting, as Bangladeshi authorities have not reached any decision regarding this matter, Bangladesh Energy Ministry sources said.

According to some sources in Bangladesh, Bangladesh will not be in a position to sign any agreement on the gas pipeline until India permits Bangladesh to use its soil as a business corridor.

Bangladesh wants to use Indian territory as a business corridor in order to achieve three aims. These are to facilitate Bangladeshi export of goods to Nepal and Bhutan, to import electricity from these nations to Bangladesh through Indian soil, and finally to reduce the huge trade imbalance between Bangladesh and India.

The Indian Energy Minister initially agreed to accept these three conditions proposed by Bangladesh at the first technical-committee meeting in Rangoon on 24 February. However, it is now clear that these conditions are not being met in reality, as the Indian Foreign Ministry appears to be against agreeing to any such conditions in the signing of a deal on the pipeline.

Since February, a further tri-state meeting on the pipeline has been repeatedly postponed, despite the fact that the timeline agreed at the January 24 meeting in Rangoon scheduled a meeting to be held on March 24 2005.

Burma has now again proposed for a meeting to be held in Dhaka. However the future of the meeting remains uncertain as Bangladesh now does not appear keen to participate.

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