By: Our Correspondent

As expected, China has utterly ignored protests from Burmese protest
groups to begin construction of a 980-km dual oil and gas pipeline that
will cross the entire Burmese countryside from the offshore Shwe gas
fields of Arakan state to China's southern Yunnan Province.

A
protest group, Arakan Youth, has protested that as long ago as 2006,
500 people from villages on the India-Burma border had already been
relocated and forced into uncompensated labor to clear the way for the
US$2.5 billion pipeline, which is expected to go online in three years.

That constitutes a dilemma for US President Barack Obama as he
seeks to engage with the long-isolated country, one of the world's
poorest and most brutal. It remains a question whether the United
States, having applied the stick to Burma for more than two decades,
will now get anything out of applying the carrot, as he famously
attempted to do at meetings of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation
meetings in Singapore last week.

The countries contiguous to
Burma appear nearly oblivious. In a lesson to Obama of just how little
effect the sanctions have had on Burma, the Shwe field itself is being
developed by companies from some of America's staunchest allies
including South Korea's Daewoo International, Korea Gas and India's
state-owned enterprises ONGC Videsh and GAIL. Daewoo is expected to
take up a 25 percent stake in the pipeline, which will transport crude
from tankers calling from Africa and the Middle East rather than making
the time-consuming trip down through the pirate-invested Strait of
Malacca and back up to China.

Nor are India and South Korea
alone. According to a brochure put out by Total, the French energy
company which is part of a consortium whose other partners are Unocal,
a unit of the US-based Chevron, Thailand's PTTEP and Burma's own
Myanmar Oil & Gas Enterprise are producing gas from the rich
offshore Yadana field and exporting 85 percent of the gas to Thailand,
where it supplies 20 percent of that country's power generation
facilities, with output averaging 20 million cubic meters of gas per
day in 2008.

The remaining 15 percent is sold locally. But even
though most of the cities in Burma are dependent on private generators
for electricity, instead of using the natural gas for Burmese citizens,
the military junta is selling the gas to its neighboring developing
countries in exchange for foreign currency.

China in
particular has steadily increased its trade ties with Burma, one of the
world's most reviled countries because of its human rights policies,
and recently signed an agreement to become sole buying authority of the
Shwe gas reserve. Under this agreement, Beijing took the responsibility
to construct the US$2.5 billion trans-Burma (oil and gas) corridor to
feed its voracious need for energy. The State-owned China National
Petroleum Corporation holds 50.9 percent of the pipeline, with the
capacity to pump nearly 12 million tons of oil and 12 billion cubic
meters of gas annually, in partnership with the Myanmar Oil and Gas
Enterprise. The Burmese government expects to receive $29 billion over
30 years from the deal.

"The military rulers of Burma, which is
otherwise facing heavy economic sanctions by the United States and many
European countries, keep themselves alive with royalties earned from
selling the natural resources to other countries. But all this money is
hardly used for any public welfare activities," said M. Kim, an exile
Burmese living in India.

Speaking to Asia Sentinel from New
Delhi, Kim, who is associated with the Burma Centre Delhi, pointed out
that the State Peace and Development Council, the junta that runs the
country, has mastered the art of ignoring the concerns of the
international community for its rights record. Once the rice bowl of
Asia, Burma is today one of the poorest countries on the globe, but the
military junta of Naypyidaw spends more than 40 percent of its national
budget on defense. Only 2 percent goes to health and education of the
50 million Burmese.

Beijing has brushed aside demands by more
than 120 organizations based in 20 countries to halt the construction
of the pipeline project. Led by the Shwe Gas Movement, a Thailand based
oil-gas watchdog and rights group, the movement endorsed a memorandum
to the Chinese government on the Global Day of Action on October 28.

In
the letter, addressed to the President of the People's Republic of
China and sent through the Chinese embassies in various countries
including, among others, Burma's Association of Southeast Asian Nations
partners, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Sweden and others, expressing
serious concern at the probable threats to the environment and the
Burmese because of the project. The letter also asked President Hu
Jintao to immediately stop construction, which is all but
inconceivable. EarthRights International, in a recent survey,
identified 69 Chinese companies engaged in extracting natural resources
including oil, gas, hydropower development and mining from Burmese
sites.

Nor did Burma's Asean partners appear to be concerned.
The 10-member body refused to go along with a request by Obama for a
joint communiqué asking that democracy leader Aung San Suu Ky, who has
spent 14 of the last 20 years under house arrest, to be freed. Obama
was forced release his own statement asking for Suu Ky's freedom,
although the group did to release a joint statement with the US,
calling for free elections next year — which the opposition has
already condemned as a sham aimed at providing a thin veneer of
democracy for the junta.

"We are gravely concerned for the
thousands communities living along the planned 980 km pipeline
corridor. Based on experiences in Burma, partnerships with the MOGE on
infra-structure development projects invariably lead to forced
displacement, forced labor and loss of livelihoods," the letter from
the 120 organizations said. "The escalation of abuses around a project
when Burma army soldiers provide security is well documented by UN
agencies and NGOs."

"What is more awful that the local
communities, who will be affected by the project, are still unaware of
it and they are not being consulted. At the same time, neither the
military authority nor the CNPC had gone for any environmental and
social impact assessments before launching the pipeline project," said
Wong Aung, the coordinator of the Shwe Gas Movement.

Speaking to
Asia Sentinel from Chiang Mai, Thailand, the young activist also
revealed that over 10, 000 Burmese soldiers had already been deployed
along the pipeline route, a number that is likely to be increased in
the days to come and one that is likely to add to the number of
incidents of human rights abuses along the pipeline route.

"Past
experiences have shown that the pipeline construction and maintenance
in the country always involve forced labor, forced relocation, land
confiscation, and other kinds of abuses by the soldiers engaged in the
project area," Wong Aung added.

In a recently launched book
titled ‘Corridor of Power: China's Trans-Burma Oil and Gas Pipelines',
the Shwe Gas Movement strongly requested that the extraction of the
Shwe natural gas deposits be postponed until local people in western
Burma could participate in the decision-making process about the use of
the resources. It added that the concerned neighboring countries and
the oil companies must stop trade with the military junta and refrain
from further investment until there is a democratically elected
government in the country.

Burma's western coast, which is rich
in oil and gas reserves, has become the battleground for Beijing and
New Delhi in recent years," said an editorial in the Shwe Gas Bulletin.
"The western companies showed reluctance in investing in Burma, but
both China and India continued their mission and battle over the
Burmese oil and gas. The editorial added that at a time when China and
India were exploiting the resources of Arakan to enhance their energy
and economic security, over four million people living in the State
were only facing human rights abuses and economic hardship.

Debbie
Stothard, coordinator to Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, said in an
interview projects in Burma have displaced thousands of poor Burmese
and exposed to them to abuse by the military. Speaking to Asia Sentinel
from Bangkok, Stothard added that the Shwe pipeline project would have
a heavy impact on the people along the route and would end up adversely
affecting the entire region.

None of that appears to matter to
the Chinese, the governments surrounding Burma, or any countries
wishing to buy Burma's rich natural resources.