Sunday, November 9, 2008

Myanmar's Natural Gas Posturing for Trouble

China and India should have restrained Myanmar from sending naval and prospecting vessels this week to a natural-gas-rich patch of the Bay of Bengal that is also claimed by Bangladesh. The tense maritime standoff brought a risk of war between two failed states.

The two Asian powers are the principal export markets for Myanmar's ample natural resources. Like much of sub-Saharan Africa, Myanmar is a focus of intense Chinese efforts to lock up supplies of oil, gas and other commodities. Myanmar's resources can be easily transported to China's burgeoning southwest.

Beijing-backed companies pay their bills on time and don't ask questions about human rights, which is very convenient to one of the world's most repressive regimes.

For its part, India has provided Myanmar with considerable military aid, and Indian companies are racing to match their Chinese counterparts' deals there.

Resource revenues are one of the regime's few sources of income, and help pay the soldiers on whom it relies to put down periodic pro-democracy protests. Last year's demonstrations, which nearly toppled the regime, made the military rulers even more interested in those earnings.

Their decision to provoke Bangladesh, which has no cozy relationship with China or India, shows how far they will go to keep the commodities flowing.

New Delhi and Beijing should not be comfortable with this odious regime. Propping up such a government is a crime against Myanmar's citizens, and in the long run unlikely to benefit either of the great powers of the region.

Myanmar's patrons, which are eager to be seen as responsible international actors, should not have allowed such destabilizing behaviour, China's pious urging of caution on both sides this week notwithstanding.

Adding a conflict with Myanmar to Bangladesh's long list of problems will only further weaken a country that has already begun to produce Islamic militants in worrying quantities, and sits perpetually on the brink of humanitarian catastrophe.

For now, reining Myanmar in from starting a war would be a small but important sign that the two powers will not always accept resources obtained at an immorally high cost.

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