Amid Deaths, Censorship, Oil Companies Continue Myanmar Operations

By Avni Patel

Oct 3, 2007 3:01pm

Despite a bloody government crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Myanmar, Chevron and other oil giants continue to operate in the country, paying billions in taxes and fees that support Myanmar’s repressive regime. Myanmarese dissident groups say the government has killed hundreds and detained thousands of monks and citizens in camps as part of its recent efforts to violently quash a pro-democracy movement that threatens their rule. The government of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, says only 10 people have died in the violence.  President Bush, Secretary State Condoleezza Rice, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and other world leaders have all strongly condemned the violence. U.S. congressional leaders from both parties sent a videotape message to the people of Myanmar supporting their struggle for democracy. The oil companies, who have argued their business in Myanmar helps its citizens, have expressed concern over the crackdown — and kept their operations going. U.S.-based Chevron and France’s Total, which jointly operate the Yadana natural gas pipeline, issued statements in the last week, expressing "deep concerns" about the situation in Myanmar and calling for a "peaceful resolution." Click Here for Full Blotter Coverage. Both statements reaffirmed the companies are committed to staying in Myanmar, pointing to social and health programs they say have improved the lives of those in communities along the Yadana pipeline route. Most of Myanmar’s residents are not able to read the statements at the moment. The junta owns the country’s telecommunications firms, and on Friday reportedly cut off Internet access for all computers in the country that did not belong to the regime. Human rights activists urge the oil companies to take a principled stand.  "They need to strongly condemn what the government is doing and make their voices heard," said Arvind Ganesan, director of Business and Human Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. "Being silent isn’t constructive engagement." Chevron, Total and other oil companies have poured billions in Myanmar’s booming natural gas industry in recent years. Natural gas projects generated $2.16 billion in revenue for Myanmar’s military regime in 2006, according to Human Rights Watch. Human rights groups say the revenue from taxes and fees on the gas pipelines have become the largest source of cash for Myanmar’s generals and have helped to prop them up.    "Whenever you have billions of dollars in revenue that flow directly to a government that does not express any interest in looking out for the benefit for its people, it certainly helps them stay in power," said Ganesan.    U.S. sanctions largely prohibit investment in Myanmar by U.S. companies. Chevron Corporation is the only major U.S. company remaining in Myanmar. It took over a 28 percent stake in the Yadana pipeline project when it bought Unocal. The investment pre-dated the U.S. sanctions and was grandfathered by the law. Myanmarese villagers sued Unocal and Total of France, which operates the pipeline, alleging the companies were complicit in human rights abuses during the building of the pipeline in the 1990s. The companies settled the lawsuit outside of court for an undisclosed amount. Other companies that have invested in Myanmar’s natural gas industry include Nippon Oil of Japan, Thailand’s state-controlled oil company PTTEP and Malaysia’s state-owned oil company Petronas. Indian, South Korean and Chinese firms are also involved in natural gas exploration off Myanmar’s shores, and are currently vying for multi-billion-dollar projects. Do you have a tip for Brian Ross and the Investigative Team?

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