By Florence Tan
SINGAPORE (Reuters) – PetroChina International Singapore Pte Ltd sold a cargo of jet fuel into Myanmar in April, according to government import data reviewed by Reuters, the first such shipment since before the military seized power in a coup in February.
Industry sources say suppliers have been particularly wary of selling jet fuel because it could be used in planes to bomb ethnic armed groups that have been supporting anti-junta protesters, as well as in civilian airliners.
The shipment could raise new questions over China’s role in Myanmar at a time when it has been accused by the junta’s opponents of backing coup leader Min Aung Hlaing – an accusation rejected by Beijing.
China’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment. PetroChina, a listed company controlled by state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation, did not respond to requests for comment about the fuel shipment.
The import data, which hasn’t been published, shows PetroChina International shipped 13,300 tonnes of jet fuel and 4,000 tonnes of gasoline onboard tanker MT Yu Dong for discharge at Myanmar’s Thilawa terminal on April 15.
Western nations including the United States and Britain have condemned the junta for killing hundreds of civilians and have applied limited sanctions, but there are currently no international measures outlawing oil product shipments.
And while the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to which Myanmar belongs, has called for an end to violence and dialogue among the parties, it stopped well short of calling for sanctions in an April statement.
China has not been so forceful in condemning the junta and has simply said it wants to see stability in its neighbour, drawing accusations from some of the junta’s opponents that it is supporting the military authorities.
“Given Beijing’s desire to boost its influence in Naypyidaw, it seems unlikely that any Chinese state firm would be too concerned by the threat of backlash from the international community over doing business with Myanmar’s government,” said Henrick Tsjeng, an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
Activist group Justice for Myanmar condemned the fuel sale.
“We’re appalled that PetroChina is exporting jet fuel to Myanmar, doing business with the war criminals who are conducting indiscriminate air strikes against ethnic communities,” said spokeswoman Yadanar Maung.
Data from Singapore trade agency Enterprise Singapore confirmed a mid-April shipment of aviation turbine fuel into Myanmar. The fuel can be used by both commercial and military planes, possibly needing to be blended depending on the grade.
Reuters saw no evidence that the fuel was destined for military jets. The junta spokesman did not respond to calls requesting comment.
Military jets have carried out frequent bombing raids against ethnic armies opposed to the junta in northern and eastern Myanmar as fighting has surged since the Feb. 1 coup that toppled elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
One of the forces that has been bombed, the Kachin Independence Army, told Reuters it had attacked seven oil trucks it suspected of bringing aviation fuel in by road from China this week. It did not comment on the PetroChina shipment.
The Myanmar data showed PetroChina International sold the jet fuel to National Energy Puma Aviation Services Co Ltd (NEPAS), a joint venture between Puma Energy and Myanma Petroleum Enterprise (MPE). The gasoline went to three other local fuel importers.
Puma Energy told Reuters NEPAS arranged for delivery of a cargo at the Thilawa terminal on April 15, but declined to comment on the type of fuel being offloaded.
Puma Energy, a fuel storage and retail firm majority-owned by global commodities trader Trafigura, said it had suspended operations in Myanmar on Feb. 10 to ensure employee safety.
Since then, operations of the NEPAS joint venture are being carried out by majority shareholder MPE, Puma Energy’s spokesman said.
MPE, owned by the Ministry of Electrical and Energy (MOEE) which is now under junta control, did not respond to a request for comment.
In addition to the jet fuel, 79,500 tonnes of gasoline and 110,700 tonnes of diesel were shipped to Myanmar last month from Asia’s oil trading hub, Enterprise Singapore’s data showed.
Myanmar last imported about 13,800 tonnes of jet fuel in February, according to government data. Monthly imports in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, were about 14,500 tonnes.
PetroChina International Singapore is the Singapore-based trading unit of PetroChina Co Ltd.
(Reporting by Florence Tan; Additional reporting by Koustav Samanta and Aradhana Aravindan in Singapore, and Poppy McPherson in Bangkok; Editing by Tom Hogue)