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Myanmar: Washington’s geopolitics and the Straits of Malacca

Published Oct 28, 2007 9:22 PM

Attempting to understand George W. Bush’s concern for the people of Myanmar means looking beyond his statements at the U.N. General Assembly that “Americans are outraged by the situation in Burma” and that attempting to impose a new round of economic sanctions is because he “only desires peaceful change in Burma.”

How is it possible for the Bush administration to be on the same side as a popular or progressive struggle, while threatening the planet with World War III and conducting criminal wars of occupation that has cost more than a million Iraqi and Afghan lives?

What has received little attention in the U.S. corporate media is Myanmar’s geopolitical position and its rich resources. A U.S. base in Myanmar is considered vital for control of the most strategically important sea lanes in the Pacific.

Remember that the U.S. government actively supports, arms and defends dictatorships like those in nearby Thailand and Pakistan. U.S. imperialism’s record overthrowing popular and democratic governments in Iran, Congo, Chile, Guyana and many other countries shows that Washington has never promoted democratic change except as a cover for direct intervention.

Straits of Malacca— chokepoint of Asia

Eighty percent of the oil shipped to China’s booming economy passes through the Straits of Malacca, the shortest sea route for oil coming from West Africa and the Persian Gulf to the South China Seas. The oil is also essential for economies and industries of Japan, Malaysia, South Korea and the other East Asian countries.

The southern tip of Myanmar is strategically situated on the western entrance to the Straits of Malacca. This funnel shaped waterway, which narrows to 1.5 miles between Indonesia and Malaysia, links the Indian and Pacific Ocean. More than half of the oil tankers in the world ply this route.

According to F. William Engdahl, author of “A Century of War: Anglo-American Oil Politics and the New World Order” and the Web site www.engdahl.oilgeopolitics.net, more than 12 million barrels in oil supertankers pass through this narrow passage daily.

Engdahl explains that the Pentagon has been trying to militarize this region since Sept. 11, 2001. The Pentagon claims this is essential for defense against terrorist attacks and pirates. It would also give the Pentagon unilateral control of the main route for China’s energy supply.

In November 2003, Xinhua News Agency quoted President Hu Jintao warning that China needed to develop a strategy because some big countries were attempting “to control the transportation channel at Malacca.”

The Wall Street Journal of Oct. 7, 2005, explained China’s growing apprehension. “The U.S. is the only power with sufficient naval forces to enforce a blockade of the 900-kilometer waterway that borders Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.”

According to Energy Bulletin, Oct. 3, the Chinese government is so concerned about China’s vulnerability to U.S. control or blockade of the straits that it is now building a strategic China-Myanmar oil and gas pipeline 2,300 kilometers (1,460 miles) across Myanmar, from Myanmar’s deep water port at Sittwe in the Bay of Bengal to Kunming in China’s Yunnan Province, where an oil refinery will be built. This would allow China to bypass the Malacca Straits entirely.

It is noteworthy that the sanctions against Myanmar that the U.S. tried to push through the U.N. Security Council would block “new” construction of a transit pipeline. The vast Chevron and Total S.A. oil corporation’s investments, however, would be free of all U.N. and EU sanctions or restrictions because their agreements with Myanmar are “grandfathered” in.

Adm. Muller on surrounding China

On Oct. 18, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, described the Pentagon’s plans to look beyond their deteriorating position in Iraq and Afghanistan to “refocus the military’s attention beyond the current wars to prepare for other challenges, especially along the Pacific rim and in Africa.”

Mullen, speaking at a news conference with Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the Pentagon, also described the need to be prepared for high-intensity wars against “larger adversaries.” Mullen said, “I recognize that the military budget is higher now than it has ever been” but “I would see that in the future as an absolute floor.”

The Pentagon’s new strategy of “forward positioning” calls for establishing sites where U.S. forces can store equipment and from which they can come and go as needed. Fearful of their own angry populations and the anti-U.S. climate, all the countries of the region initially denied the Pentagon basing rights.

Hiding behind ‘humanitarian relief’

The U.S. Pacific Fleet moved back into South Asia by providing emergency relief during the Dec. 26, 2004 tsunami near Indonesia.

Using the cover of tsunami relief, the U.S. Navy also moved back into the giant U-Tapao base on the Gulf of Siam in Thailand. This had been a major front-line U.S. base during the Vietnam War, from which the Pentagon launched 80 percent of its air strikes against North Vietnam.

After the tsunami emergency passed, the elected government in Thailand wanted the U.S. Navy to leave. A U.S.-supported military coup in September 2006 overthrew the elected government, abolished the parliament, revoked the constitution and established a military dictatorship. This was considered a major setback for democracy in the region.

Unlike the response of the corporate media to the current military crackdown and censorship in Myanmar, there was barely a mention of the coup or the total news shutdown in Thailand. Armed soldiers stood guard in TV newsrooms, and more than 400 community radio stations in the north and northeast of Thailand were closed. The dictatorship even blocked BBC, CNN and other Western news broadcasts.

There were no complaints from the Bush administration then and no calls for international sanctions. The U.S. State Department merely expressed the hope that elections would again be organized in the near future.

One of the dictatorship’s first acts was to allow the U.S. Navy use of the U-Tapao Base.

At the same time, the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group NINE (CSG-9) moved into Banda Aceh, Indonesia’s Sultan Iskandar Muda Air Force Base at the entrance of the Straits of Malacca, across from Myanmar. Navy ships arrived to provide tsunami relief. The U.S. military said that they were unable to predict when they will be able to withdraw their “resources” from the region.

The U.S. Navy Seventh Fleet’s USS Gary made the first U.S. visit to impoverished and underdeveloped Cambodia in more than 30 years, landing at the Ream Naval Base near Sihanoukville. The U.S. Navy is expanding the base so Ream can receive more warships and navy personnel. A U.S. intelligence base is being built on the Cambodian island of Koh Tang in the Gulf of Thailand.

Although the military dictatorship in Myanmar has complied with many imperialist demands for greater access to its once nationalized resources, it is an unstable repressive regime that understands that there is a 150-year history of opposition to colonialism, and especially to British imperialism, among Myanmar’s population. Fearful for its own survival, the regime has been unwilling to grant U.S. military bases. This has frustrated the Pentagon’s plans for the region.

Even though Chevron and French oil corporation Total S.A. have reaped enormous profits from the Yadana gas concessions in Myanmar, they are interested in helping to overturn the regime if they could secure even greater access and more lucrative terms.

Myanmar-Burma: U.S. strategy toward 1988, 2007 uprisings