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From Burma to Beijing: Asia's sensitive petrol politics

China's announcement Thursday that it will raise the price of fuel risks angering its poorest citizens. Fuel prices have sparked unrest in several Asian nations.

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A bull oil market has been putting a squeeze on poor households in Asia, even before the recent spike that took crude oil prices closer to $100 a barrel. Now, Asian governments are starting to feel the strain over subsidies on politically sensitive fuel prices.

China raised domestic fuel prices Thursday on diesel and gasoline by nearly 10 percent after gas stations reportedly began rationing diesel to truck drivers in response to bottlenecks at state-run refineries. The jump in prices came despite a recent pledge by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to stick to existing price caps amid concerns over rising food costs. Even gas stations in Beijing have suffered shortages.

In Asia, hiking fuel prices can be a perilous political move. The recent protests in Burma that were later brutally repressed began in August, after diesel prices doubled overnight. Commuters unable to pay higher bus fares had to walk to work, and their plight became a lightning rod for dissent. In recent years, authorities in Nepal and Indonesia have also faced demonstrations over the removal of fuel subsidies.

Last week, the UN Development Program (UNDP) released a report that highlighted how removing state subsidies risks fomenting political unrest. Rising oil prices, the agency said, were cutting gains in reducing poverty in the Asia/Pacific region and forcing families to scale back consumption. A survey of poor households in four countries found that energy bills rose by an average 74 percent during 2002-05, before the current run-up in crude prices.

Buoyed by export growth and backed by heavy subsidies, China's economy has appeared impervious to rising crude prices. But that doesn't mean that rising fuel prices aren't felt by poorer households in China and other countries, says Nandita Mongia, an energy expert for the UNDP in Bangkok and lead author of the new report. Many families have been hit hard by the rising cost of public transportation, as well as by higher bills for cooking fuel and electricity.

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