The protests, ignited in mid-August by the rise in costs of gasoline and food in this impoverished country, had, at first, been low-keyed but have steadily amplified over the past few weeks. Tens of thousands took to the streets last Monday in their protests against measures taken by the military regime, that has been in power since 1962. If the protests grow, observers expect their violent repression. A similar situation had arisen in 1988, when repressive forces used brutal force against the demonstrators, killing several thousand. Berlin has just demanded, that the Myanmar government release opponents and lift the house arrest of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. "What is needed is a dialogue involving all political forces", declared a speaker of the German foreign ministry on September 24.
On all levels
Germany is taking the side of forces, considered relatively "weak" by experts, but definitely closer to the West than the military regime. At the beginning of September, the SPD affiliated Friedrich Ebert Foundation held discussions with members of Myanmar's opposition on the country's future ("What to do about Burma/Myanmar?"). This was a continuation of the Foundation's collaboration with the Myanmarian opposition that was initiated back in the 1990's. The foundation's main cooperation partner is the "exile government" (National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, NCGUB), based in the United States, but also the "Euro Burma Office" based in Brussels, which was founded in 1997, by the social democratic organization and the European Commission. The "Office" is coordinating regular contacts of the Myanmarian "democratic movement" to the European Commission and EU countries. But it is also coordinating the "democratic movement" itself "at both the leadership and the grassroots level, within, as well as outside of Burma, especially in the region bordering Thailand". Already several years ago, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation noted, that it is not only supporting the "democratic movement's" subversive activities, but is also aiding "in its discussion on Burma's future constitution".
Contrary to the pro-western opposition, the Myanmarian government is cooperating closely with China. Even though India has intensified its cooperation wit the military regime over the past few years, Beijing remains Myanmar's privileged partner. This was recently confirmed, when the Myanmar government chose to cancel an accord to deliver natural gas from two large fields to Delhi and deliver it instead to China. This decision has strengthened China's influence, because Myanmar plays an important role in its resource strategy. The pipeline will transport eastward more than just natural gas from this Southern Asian country. Beijing is also planning the construction of a harbor for oil tankers on the Myanmarian Indian Ocean coast, from where Middle East oil will be pumped via a pipeline to China. According to Beijing, this would reduce the risky oil shipment through the Malacca Straits (between Indonesia and Malaysia). For years the EU has been trying to obtain a stronger military influence over the Malacca Straits. The Malacca Straits have been of essential importance for supplies to China.
Berlin is particularly upset over speculations, that China could use its influence on Myanmar to enhance its scope of military action. Several years ago already, German policy advisers declared, that Beijing has a naval base as well as an army base for electronic surveillance installed on the territory of its southern neighbor. Chinese submarines were already operating in the vicinity of Indian territory (close to Andaman and Nicobar) according to a Friedrich Ebert Foundation expert's report from late summer 2000. He concluded that "the expected intensification of Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean within the next 15 to 20 years" will inevitably also affect the energy interests of the USA and Japan."
In close cooperation
The German government is using its prestigious support of the Myanmarian democratic movement to roll back Beijing's influence. With the same objective, German business circles are cooperating with the military regime - in coordination with the German foreign ministry. The Hamburg based German Asia-Pacific Business Association (OAV) will organize a visit of a delegation to Myanmar, to take place in a few weeks. The OAV does not expect a rapid success against their Chinese rival. Nevertheless, "businesses wanting to break into this expansive and promising market, are advised to do so rapidly." A few German firms, like Bayer (Leverkusen), are already active in Myanmar. "The development of the Myanmar energy sector and the construction of several hydropower stations inside the country are opening up (...) business opportunities" also "for German firms", announces the German foreign ministry. The OAV's delegation's visit, planned for November, is organized as well "in close cooperation with the German embassy".