More today on Burma, because I'm coming across another meme with respect to the latitude that the country's ruling thugs enjoy to brutalise their people, and I'd like to qualify it a little. Yesterday I looked at the "internal affair" theme that China has draped over discussion of the situation, and looked at some of the reasons why China was getting away with peddling this nonsense. Looks like I'm back agreeing with Christopher Hitchens, who suggests that we boycott eh Olympics next year*.
Today's theme is that Burma enjoys such natural resources that it enjoys a degree of impunity from those that want to exploit these resources. You'll find this idea expressed here in the New York Times, as well as in the FT. You could also find a California jeweler urging that we boycott rubies** on the World Service's irritating Global News podcast this morning.
I'll leave rubies to one side, though I was impressed to learn that the wee little red blobs bring in just south of $300 million to the junta per year.
The gas, though, is an interesting one. Bruma has plenty of it, and may have a little oil, though too little to be of much consequence to anyone. The gas, though, is in decent quantities, and fires 20% of Thailand's electricity production (I'm guessing a little less of its capacity, on the assumption that Thailand uses hydroelectricity and diesel generators to serve peak demand.
Still, here's the cool thing about gas, as opposed to oil: a supplier is as much dependent on the customer as the customer is dependent on the supplier. Probably a little more so. Thailand, while it finds in Burma a cheap and convenient source of gas, could possibly find gas through pipeline capacity from Malaysia, and maybe even Vietnam.
Burma, on the other hand, knows that its entire gas export infrastructure is designed to supply gas to one country. there are no alternatives. You can't just plonk it in a tanker and send it to another country with suitably low human rights standards. The ability to do that, to liquefy gas, requires knowledge capital, and time, and probably right now only the French have the nerve to supply it. After all, it was French firm Total, as well as some US firms, that built the pipeline between Burma and Thailand.
So when the military leadership of the Thais says this:
But the bottom line, Thai officials say, is that Thailand is competing for the world’s energy resources, and if it doesn’t buy the gas, someone else will.
They're not being entirely honest. In the time it takes to build alternative export projects, assuming the Burmese could get the financing together, it might have grown rather difficult, in the absence of gas revenues, to keep the junior officers in the style to which they've become accustomed.
Still, to say that the Thais can exert leverage over the Burmese is not to say that they will, nor that rejecting Burmese gas would not cause some hardship. Thailand used to be able to buy cheap power from Vietnam, but Vietnam now needs that itself, and there's only so much of the Laos highlands that can be dotted with hydroelectric plants. Rejecting Burmese gas would at the very least increase power prices, and the Thai government, which hardly enjoys massive legitimacy itself, is unlikely to allow a situation to develop that might threaten its own hold on power just to try and bluff the Burmese regime into surrendering power
So, this is just my way of saying that the lead times for energy infrastructure construction are such that if Thailand felt like taking down the Burmese regime, or maybe was compensated with cheap diesel for doing so, it might be able to do it. Very hypothetical, though, I'll grant you, and if the poor Thais decided to stop bringing gas into the country they'd probably have to keep paying the pipeline operators regardless. Nasty.
Meanwhile, everybody is getting ready for the lovely time they will have at the Beijing Olympics. If there could be a single demand that would fuse almost all the human rights demands of the contemporary world into one, it would be the call to boycott or cancel this disgusting celebration.
The odd thing is, there's a pretty good argument for boycotting all Olympic Games on the grounds that they're a gaudy and pointless exercise in turning over perfectly good landscape in one corner of the world or another. In my humble opinion we'd have kept China out of both the WTO and the Olympic club until it had fixed about 100 different things that keep it menacing its neighbour's security and ecology, and its own people's long-term wellbeing. But that time is past, and I am digressing, if only in a footnote.
**Again, I find little objectionable in boycotting all rubies on the grounds of extreme gaudiness and impracticality, but if I ruled the world all jewelry would be fashioned from aluminium, so I am hardly objective here.
The late, slightly great, Denis Thatcher is pictured here because he was once a director of Burmah Oil, though, I should note, only joined the company a few years after the Burmese government nationalised Burmah's assets in the country.