Friday, 1 August 2008

The Irrawaddy Business Roundup - August 1, 2008

  • Burma, India Close to Signing Chindwin Dams Agreement
  • Junta Attends South Asian Trade Summit as Observer
  • UN Burma Donors May Seek ‘Lost’ Cyclone Funds
  • Burmese Workers Opt for Qatar despite Abuse Reports
  • Qatar began issuing visas to Burmese in 2005.
Friday, August 1, 2008

Burma, India Close to Signing Chindwin Dams Agreement

India and Burma are reported to be close to signing an outline agreement to allow an Indian state company to build two large hydroelectric power systems on the River Chindwin.

The projects have been under discussion for years but are now moving to a formal memorandum of understanding, says The Financial Express of India.

The newspaper puts the cost of the two projects at around US $3.5 billion.

The blueprint plan for the huge deal involves a total electricity generating capacity of 1,800 megawatts—far more than Burma’s current entire installed capacity.

But as with similar projects planned on Burma’s eastern rivers by Thai and Chinese companies, most of the electricity would be transmitted out of the country.

The Financial Express says progress on the Chindwin projects— which were first mooted more than seven years ago —has accelerated since India lost out to China on buying the huge gas reserves in the offshore Shwe field.

Analysts say that instead of relations souring between New Delhi and Naypyidaw over the China-Shwe gas coup, they have considerably improved.

India’s National Hydroelectric Power Corporation wants to build 1,200 megawatt and a 600-megawatt hydro dam systems on the Chindwin at Tamanthi and Shwzaye. Resulting electricity would be fed into India’s eastern grid via Manipur State bordering Burma.

“Progress on this front is being seen as a big positive in the bilateral ties between the two countries, which had soured after Myanmar [Burma] decided to withdraw India’s “preferential buyer” status for [Shwe] gas exports,” said The Financial Express this week.

Junta Attends South Asian Trade Summit as Observer

Burma is attending a regional trade, food and energy security conference in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo this weekend.

The military junta has been granted observer status at the South Asian Association of Regional Corporation (SAARC) summit, which brings together the heads of government of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, the Maldives, Bhutan and Afghanistan.

SAARC is mainly concerned with cooperation on basic resources infrastructure as a means of helping development and reducing poverty, but as with all similar organizations since September 11, 2001, it now has the issue of terrorism on the agenda.

Burma has applied for full membership of SAARC and is being backed by India, reported the Press Trust of India this week.

SAARC has recently introduced a fledgling free trade agreement among member countries, making it potentially the world’s biggest market with a combined population of about 1.5 billion.

However, many obstacles to free trade remain. A first step is lowering all trade tariffs among member countries to 20 percent.

Other observers at the two-day Colombo summit include China, Iran, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, the US and Australia.

UN Burma Donors May Seek ‘Lost’ Cyclone Funds

New York-based NGO Inner City Press says some countries that donated to the Cyclone Nargis cash aid appeal are furious at the UN admission that at least $10 million has been lost to the Burma generals in a currency exchange scam.

“Legislators in many donor countries which responded to the UN’s appeals for humanitarian assistance are preparing a demand that the stolen aid money be returned by the Than Shwe government,” says Inner City Press spokesman Matthew Russell Lee.

The NGO investigates issues such as transparency, corporate accountability and predatory lending.

The $10 million loss was disclosed by the UN’s humanitarian chief, John Holmes, when he returned to New York after a post-cyclone assessment visit to Burma.

The US is forced to convert U.S. dollars needed for cash purchases within Burma into Burmese kyat via Foreign Exchange Certificates with the junta-controlled Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank.

But after the cyclone the exchange rate suddenly dropped, resulting in losses on the converted aid money of at least 15 percent.

Burmese Workers Opt for Qatar despite Abuse Reports

The tiny Middle East emirate of Qatar has emerged as the fourth most popular destination for Burmese seeking work abroad— despite reports of abuse and poor conditions.

Qatar is one of several small, independent emirates on the Persian Gulf investing huge sums on development from oil and gas revenue, and needs labor for construction and services such as hotels.

Qatar is in fourth place behind Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore as a destination for migrant labor, according to the Chinese official news agency Xinhua, citing Burmese officials.

Qatar began issuing visas to Burmese in 2005.

Qatar has a population of just 900,000, and foreign workers comprise almost 90 percent of the labor force.

The emirate is attractive because it promises higher wages, tax free, than in Southeast Asia. Migrant workers can earn up to $850 per month.

However, a recent US State Department Trafficking in Persons Report alleged that some foreign workers lured to Qatar by promises of high wages are forced into underpaid labor.

In July, the Qatar government announced it would extend labor law protection rights to domestic workers.

Relations between Naypyidaw and Qatar are not too cozy: the Burmese authorities turned back a rescue team from Qatar that flew to Rangoon to help in the immediate aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in early May.

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