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What stigma? Burma (Myanmar) draws energy-hungry neighbors

Activists who pressured Western companies to boycott Burma (Myanmar) are now preparing to battle Asian firms eager for Burma’s oil and gas.

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As India dithered, China swooped in with its proposal of twin pipelines in 2007. The first will transport gas from Daewoo-operated gas fields. The second is designed to carry some 442,000 barrels a day of crude oil, giving China an alternative route for cargoes from Africa and the Middle East, which must travel by sea through the congested Malacca Straits. Security analysts say Beijing wants to lessen its dependence on this route for its essential energy supplies.

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The pipelines cross some 600 miles of Burmese territory, including mountainous zones and areas patrolled by armed militia. By contrast, the Burmese section of the Total’s onshore pipeline is 40 miles.

“It’s going to be the most complicated and hazardous terrain for a pipeline that China has ever encountered,” says Ms. Lall.

Activists gear up

In recent years, the International Labor Organization (ILO) has criticized Burma over the practice of forced labor by the military, government agencies, and private companies. Activists say local residents are often coerced to work unpaid on massive infrastructure projects such as road building and energy pipelines.

Steve Marshall, an ILO official in Burma, says he has proposed to the government that it informs local authorities and local communities along the pipeline route that such abuses won’t be tolerated. He says he has also discussed labor issues with Daewoo, the gas operator, but hasn’t given any direct advice on their project.

For activists who successfully convinced major Western brands like Nike and Pepsi to boycott the country in the late-1990s, and who shined a spotlight on the ethics of Western oil firms operating in the country, the onrush of Asian energy companies poses new challenges. Burma’s human rights record seems unlikely to deter China National Petroleum Corporation, the pipeline operator.

Activists say they are lobbying overseas investors and other stakeholders in Asia, Europe, and the US to insist on accountability in the project and ensure that the rights of ordinary Burmese are respected.

“There are creative ways to get companies to do the right thing,” says Matthew Smith, a spokesperson for Earthrights International, the Washington-based group that sued Total and Unocal on behalf of Burmese victims.

Because of constraints placed on foreign reporters in Burma, the correspondent could not be named.