BANGKOK, Jan 15 (AFP): Despite growing frustration in Southeast Asia over military-ruled Myanmar's politics, the nation's neighbours are still eagerly eyeing its energy resources -- and spending billions in the process.
A combination of sanctions and domestic political pressure prevent most western companies from tapping into Myanmar's reserves.
But Asian countries have shown no such qualms, even though Myanmar's human rights record and its failure to deliver on promised democratic reforms have increasingly become a thorn in the side of the region.
The UN Security Council in December held an unprecedented briefing on Myanmar to signal to its military rulers that they must stop stalling on genuine democratic reforms.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) followed that up with unusually tough talk at its annual summit, and said it would send an envoy to evaluate the situation, only to have the generals postpone the trip last week.
Nonetheless, Myanmar's neighbors -- especially Thailand -- are increasingly turning to Myanmar to solve their energy problems at home, and throwing the generals an economic lifeline.
"With the US sanctions, you block the US companies, but there's plenty of others to come in the wake," said Andrew Symon, a researcher at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
"The South Asian, Southest Asian companies, they've got the capital, they've got the technology" to tap Myanmar's resources on their own, he said.
Thailand is the biggest buyer of Myanmar's exports, spending some 1.1 billion dollars in 2004, accounting for one third of the country's exports, according to the Asian Development Bank.
Bangkok's most notable purchase is Myanmar's natural gas, which makes up more than 20 per cent of Thailand's total supply, Symon said.
"These gas exports to Thailand would be far and away (Myanmar's) largest export earner."
That gas comes mainly from the Yetagun field -- operated by Malaysia's Petronas, Japan's Nippon Oil and Thailand's PTTEP -- and the Yadana field run by France's Total, US firm Unocal, and PTTEP.
But PTTEP Tuesday announced that Myanmar would receive the bulk of the company's overseas investments in the next five years, as it develops three more natural gas projects in the Gulf of Mataban as part of a 5.8 billion dollar regional investment scheme.
On Myanmar's western coast on the Bay of Bengal, a consortium led by South Korea's Daewoo has announced that the Shwe field it operates was verified with some three trillion cubic feet of natural gas -- roughly equivalent to the Yetagun field.
Daewoo said it would begin talks with potential gas buyers later this year, but China and India are already exploring the possibility of building pipelines to carry the gas to their energy-hungry economies.
India has been working on a separate proposal to pipe the gas across Bangladesh, but has run into problems negotiating the deal with Dhaka.
Alternatively, the fields could be used to provide liquefied natural gas (LNG) for possible export to South Korea or other markets.
Even with the latest finds, experts doubt a sudden rush to develop the fields, as companies try to decide how much of the gas is recoverable and how to sell it.
"There's a terrible frustration for international oil companies that they can't access it, but that's just the way it is," said Noel Tomnay, a vice president at energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie in Singapore. "For those who can access it... they will still come across financing issues of course.