From the November 2007 Idaho Observer:

Chokepoint! The Geopolitical Stakes of the Saffron Revolution

The photo above was taken in Rangoon, Myanmar, Sept. 26, 2007. The saffron-robed monk-led rebellion against the country's military dictatorship, when it made international headlines last September and now, when it's making no headlines, is not what it seems.

Myanmar made international headlines late last September when "saffron-robed monks" led a nationwide, peaceful rebellion against the nation's controlling "military junta." The "junta" responded with bullets, tear gas and arrests. Many protestors were killed and injured; leaders and supporters were brutally taken into custody. The international community, including the U.S. and the UN, immediately and unilaterally condemned the "junta's" military crackdown on peaceful protestors—but did nothing—and then became silent. In Rangoon, people say they are more frightened now than when soldiers were shooting in the streets.

"When there were demonstrations and soldiers on the streets, the world was watching," said a professional woman who watched the marchers from her office.

"But now the soldiers only come at night. They take anyone they can identify from their videos. People who clapped, who offered water to the monks, who knelt and prayed as they passed. People who happened to turn and watch as they passed by and their faces were caught on film. It is now we are most fearful. It is now we need the world to help us."

The above quote was taken from an Internet "blog" dated Nov. 11, 2007. It not only has the ring of human truth, but it mirrors perfectly the geopolitical realities behind the "Saffron Revolution," the Myanmar government's response and why the "junta's" systematic elimination of the opposition is ongoing beyond the purview of international concern. To fully appreciate the geostrategic importance of Myanmar (known as "Burma" until June 18, 1989), requires looking at three different maps, Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, Indonesia and Southeast Asia. After taking a few moments to study the geographical significance of Myanmar to shipping lanes for oil transport from Africa and the Middle
East to China, recall previous articles by F. William Engdahl wherein we gain a much deeper understanding of the domino effect globally as events unfold in eastern Europe, the Caspian Basin, Sudan and the Middle East. In all cases, the U.S. is ruthlessly protecting its own interests and the world is counting on Russia and China to politically and, if necessary, militarily, counterbalance growing U.S. belligerence worldwide.

by F. William Engdahl

There are facts and then there are facts. Take the case of the recent mass protests in Burma or Myanmar depending on which name you prefer to call the former British colony.

First it’s a fact which few will argue that the present military dictatorship of the reclusive General Than Shwe, who has been the leader of Myanmar's ruling "military junta" since 1992, is right up there when it comes to world-class tyrannies. It’s also a fact that Myanmar's people enjoy one of the world’s lowest general living standards. Last August, the government increased gasoline and other fuel prices by 100 to 500 percent. The move has caused general inflation of about 35 percent and is the nominal trigger for the mass protests led by saffron-robed Buddhist monks.

Ironically, the demand for Myanmar to establish "market" energy prices came from the IMF and World Bank.

The UN estimates the population of Myanmar's some 50 million inhabitants spends up to 70 percent of their monthly income on food alone. The recent fuel price hike makes matters unbearable for tens of millions.

Myanmar is also deeply involved in the world narcotics trade, ranking only behind Hamid Karzai’s Afghanistan as the world's leading source of heroin. As well, it is said to be Southeast Asia’s largest producer of methamphetamines.

This is all understandable powder to unleash a social explosion of protest against the ruling regime.

It is also a fact that the Myanmar military junta is on the "hit list" of U.S. Secretary of State Condi Rice and the Bush administration, ostensibly for its repressive ways. Has the Bush leopard suddenly changed his spots? Or is there a more opaque agenda behind Washington’s calls to impose severe economic and political sanctions on the regime?

Behind the recent CNN news pictures of streams of saffron-robed Buddhist Monks marching in the streets of the former capital city Rangoon (Yangon) in Myanmar—the U.S. government still prefers to call it by the British colonial name, Burma—calling for more democracy, is a battle of major geopolitical consequence.


The major actors

The tragedy of Burma, whose land area is about the size of George W. Bush’s Texas, is that its population is being used as a human stage prop in a drama which has been scripted in Washington by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the George Soros Open Society Institute, Freedom House and Gene Sharp’s Albert Einstein Institution, a U.S. intelligence asset used to spark "non-violent" regime change around the world on behalf of the U.S. strategic agenda.

Burma’s "Saffron Revolution," is organizationally similar to the Ukraine "Orange Revolution," the Georgia "Rose Revolution" and various other "color revolutions" instigated in recent years against strategic states surrounding Russia. These "revolutions" are well-orchestrated exercises in Washington-run, regime change operations.

The "saffron" version has been characterized by well-choreographed, "hit-and-run" protests materializing, as if spontaneously, in various locations throughout the country. The participants were "swarming" mobs of saffron-robed Buddhists whose peacefully-protesting news and images where instantaneously broadcast all over the world via Internet blogs; mobile SMS links between protest groups helped well-organized protest cells to converge, disperse and reform.

CNN made the blunder during a September broadcast of mentioning the active presence of the NED behind the protests in Myanmar.


The NED links

The U.S. State Department admits to supporting the activities of the NED in Myanmar. The NED is a U.S. Government-funded "private" entity whose activities are designed to support U.S. foreign policy objectives, doing today what the CIA did during the Cold War.

The NED also funds Soros’ Open Society Institute in fostering regime change in Myanmar. In an October 30, 2003 press release, the State Department admitted, "The United States also supports organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy, the Open Society Institute and Internews, working inside and outside the region on a broad range of democracy promotion activities."

It all sounds very self-effacing and noble of the State Department. Is it though?

In reality the U.S. State Department has recruited and trained key opposition leaders from numerous anti-government organizations. It has poured the relatively huge sum (for Myanmar) of more than $2.5 million annually into NED activities in promoting regime change in Myanmar since at least 2003. The U.S. regime change, its Saffron Revolution, is being largely run, according to informed reports, out of the U.S. Consulate General in bordering Chaing Mai, Thailand. There activists are recruited and trained, in some cases directly in the USA, before being sent back to organize inside Myanmar. The USA’s NED admits to funding key opposition media including the New Era Journal, Irrawaddy and the Democratic Voice of Burma radio.

The concert-master of the tactics of Saffron monk-led non-violence regime change is Gene Sharp, founder of the deceptively-named Albert Einstein Institution in Cambridge Massachusetts, a group funded by an arm of the NED to foster U.S.-friendly regime change in key spots around the world. Sharp’s institute has been active in Burma since 1989, just after the regime massacred some 3,000 protestors to silence the opposition. CIA special operative and former U.S. Military Attache in Rangoon Col. Robert Helvey, an expert in clandestine operations, introduced Sharp to Burma in 1989 to train the opposition there in non-violent political destabilization strategy. Interestingly, Sharp was also in China two weeks before the dramatic events at Tiananmen Square.


Why Myanmar now?

A relevant question is, "Why would the U.S. government have such a keen interest in fostering regime change in the remote, backward nation of Myanmar at this juncture?"

We can dismiss rather quickly the idea that it has genuine concern for democracy, justice and human rights for the oppressed population there. Iraq and Afghanistan are sufficient testimony to the fact Washington’s paean to "democracy" is propaganda cover for another agenda.

Geopolitical control seems to be the answer. Control ultimately of the strategic sea lanes from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea. The coastline of Myanmar provides naval access in the proximity of one of the world’s most strategic water passages, the Strait of Malacca, the narrow ship passage between Malaysia and Indonesia.

The Pentagon has been trying to militarize the region since September 11, 2001, on the argument of defending against possible terrorist attack. The U.S. has managed to gain an air base on Banda Aceh, the Sultan Iskandar Muda Air Force Base, on the northernmost tip of Indonesia. The governments of the region, including Myanmar, however, have adamantly refused U.S. efforts to militarize the region. A glance at a map will confirm the strategic importance of Myanmar.

The Strait of Malacca, linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans, is the shortest sea route between the Persian Gulf and China. It is the key "chokepoint" in Asia. More than 80 percent of all China’s oil imports are shipped by tankers passing through the Malacca Strait. The narrowest point is the Phillips Channel in the Singapore Strait, only 1.5 miles wide at its narrowest. Daily more than 12 million barrels in oil supertankers pass through this narrow passage, most en route to Japan and the world’s fastest-growing energy market, China.

If the strait were closed, nearly half of the world’s tanker fleet would be required to sail further. Closure would immediately raise freight rates worldwide. More than 50,000 vessels per year transit the Strait of Malacca. The region from Myanmar to Banda Aceh in Indonesia is fast becoming one of the world’s most strategic chokepoints. Who controls those waters controls China’s energy supplies.

The strategic importance of Myanmar has not been lost on Beijing.


China's string of pearls

Since it became clear to China that the U.S. was hell-bent on a unilateral militarization of the Middle East oil fields in 2003, Beijing has stepped up its engagement in Myanmar.

In recent years Beijing has poured billions of dollars in military assistance into Myanmar, including fighter, ground-attack and transport aircraft; tanks and armored personnel carriers; naval vessels and surface-to-air missiles. China has built up Myanmar railroads and roads and won permission to station its troops in Myanmar. China, according to Indian defense sources, has also built a large electronic surveillance facility on Myanmar’s Coco Islands and is building naval bases for access to the Indian Ocean.

In fact Myanmar is an integral part of what China terms its "string of pearls," its strategic design of establishing military bases in Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia in order to counter U.S. control over the Strait of Malacca chokepoint. There is also energy on and offshore of Myanmar, and lots of it.


The gas fields of Myanmar

Oil and gas have been produced in Myanmar since the British set up the Rangoon Oil Company in 1871; the company was later renamed Burma Oil Co. The country has produced natural gas since the 1970s and, in the 1990s, it granted gas concessions to the foreign companies ElfTotal of France and Premier Oil of the UK in the Gulf of Martaban. Later Texaco and Unocal (now Chevron) won concessions at Yadana and Yetagun as well. Alone Yadana has an estimated gas reserve of more than 5 trillion cubic feet with an expected life of at least 30 years. Yetagun is estimated to have about a third the gas of the Yadana field.

By 2002, both Texaco and Premier Oil withdrew from the Yetagun project following UK government and NGO pressure. Malaysia’s Petronas bought Premier’s 27 percent stake. By 2004 Myanmar was exporting Yadana gas via pipeline to Thailand worth annually $1 billion to the Myanmar regime.

In 2004, Shwe field, a large new gas field, was discovered off the coast of Arakan.

In 2005 China, Thailand and South Korea invested in expanding the Myanmar oil and gas sector, with export of gas to Thailand rising 50%. Gas export today is Myanmar’s most important source of income. Yadana was developed jointly by ElfTotal, Unocal, PTT-EP of Thailand and Myanmar’s state MOGE, operated by the French ElfTotal. Yadana supplies some 20 percent of Thai natural gas needs.

Today the Yetagun field is operated by Malaysia’s Petronas along with MOGE and Japan’s Nippon Oil and PTT-EP. The gas is piped onshore where it links to the Yadana pipeline. Gas from the Shwe field is to come online beginning in 2009. China and India have been in strong contention over the Shwe gas field reserves.


India loses, China wins

This past summer Myanmar signed a Memorandum of Understanding with PetroChina to supply large volumes of natural gas from reserves of the Shwe gas field in the Bay of Bengal. The contract runs for 30 years. India was the main loser. Myanmar had earlier given India a major stake in two offshore blocks to develop gas for transmission via pipeline through Bangladesh to India’s energy-hungry economy. Political bickering between India and Bangladesh brought the Indian plans to a standstill.

China took advantage of the stalemate. it simply trumped India with an offer to invest billions in building a strategic China-Myanmar oil and gas pipeline across Myanmar from Myanmar’s deepwater port at Sittwe in the Bay of Bengal to Kunming in China’s Yunnan Province, a stretch of more than 2,300 kilometers. China plans an oil refinery in Kumming as well.

What the Myanmar-China pipelines will allow is routing of oil and gas from Africa (Sudan among other sources) and the Middle East (Iran, Saudi Arabia) independent of dependence on the vulnerable chokepoint of the Malacca Strait. Myanmar becomes China’s "bridge" linking Bangladesh and countries westward to the China mainland independent of any possible future moves by Washington to control the strait.


India's dangerous alliance shift

It’s no wonder that China is taking such precautions. Ever since the Bush administration decided in 2005 to recruit India to the Pentagon’s "New Framework for US-India Defense Relations," India has been pushed into a strategic alliance with Washington in order to counter China in Asia.

In an October 2002 Pentagon report, The Indo-U.S. Military Relationship, the Office of Net Assessments stated the reason for the India-USA defense alliance would be to have a "capable partner" who can take on "more responsibility for low-end operations" in Asia, provide new training opportunities and "ultimately provide basing and access for U.S. power projection."

Power projection against whom? China, perhaps?

Washington is also quietly negotiating a base on Indian territory, a severe violation of India’s traditional non-aligned status.

As well, the Bush Administration has offered India to lift its 30 year nuclear sanctions and to sell advanced US nuclear technology, legitimizing India’s open violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, at the same time Washington accuses Iran of violating same, an exercise in political hypocrisy to say the least.

Notably, just as the Saffron-robed monks of Myanmar took to the streets, the Pentagon opened joint U.S.-Indian naval exercises, Malabar 07, along with armed forces from Australia, Japan and Singapore. The U.S. showed the awesome muscle of its 7th Fleet, deploying the aircraft carriers USS Nimitz and USS Kitty Hawk; guided missile cruisers USS Cowpens and USS Princeton and no less than five guided missile destroyers.

U.S.-backed regime change in Myanmar together with Washington’s growing military power projection via India and other allies in the region is clearly a factor in Beijing’s policy vis-à-vis Myanmar’s present military junta. As is often the case these days, from Darfur to Caracas to Rangoon, the rallying call of Washington for democracy ought to be tasted with at least a grain of good salt.

F. William Engdahl is the author of A Century of War: Anglo-American Oil Politics and the New World Order (see ad page 17). To contact the author or see more articles on geostrategy, go to

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