Fri 25 Feb 2005
Filed under: International,News
Campaigners crank up pressure on oil companies over ties with regime linked with human rights abuses and imprisonment of opposition politicians
French major Total has been accused by an international coalition comprising more than 40 organisations in 18 countries of playing a crucial role in propping up Burma’s brutal military dictatorship with up to $450 million a year of revenues flowing from the Yadana gas field.
In a hard-hitting report, called “Totalitarian Oil Total Oil: Fuelling the oppression in Burma”, and marking the start of a major international campaign, the Paris-based oil giant is alleged to have used its influence over French foreign policy to protect its interests in the country.
John Jackson, director of the Burma Campaign UK, says Total has done more than any other company to help prop up the regime in Burma. “The French government is protecting Total’s interests in Burma by blocking tougher European Union sanctions against the dictatorship,” he says.
Total’s influence on the French government is claimed by the groups to ensure an EU policy that is deviod of any serious sanction against Burma’s much-discredited dictators.
Last year, France is alleged to have vetoed a proposed EU ban on new investment in Burma’s oil and gas sector in order to protect Total’s investment in the country. The US banned new investment in 1997. “The consequence of Total’s Burma operation is that the regime knows it is safe from any tough EU action,” says Jackson.
Total, meanwhile, is standing its ground. The French supermajor tells Upstream that, together with many international organisations and especially those working in Burma, it believes sanctions against the country and the pressure for withdrawal of foreign investors is not the solution.
“It is our view that such measures would only increase suffering while having no real impact on the political debate,” says Total spokesman Philip Gateau.
“The only victims would be the country’s population. We believe that Burma needs more openness, more dialogue and more commitment.”
The Yadana project is estimated by analysts to earn the regime between $200 million and $450 million in revenues per year, but these figures remain unconfirmed. Due to contract confidentiality, Gateau declins to reveal any specifics on revenues being earned by the military regime from Yadana, but he claims it represents a “really marginal” contribution to the state coffers.
The groups claim the Yadana pipeline has been closely associated with serious human rights abuses, including forced labour, relocation, beatings, torture, rape and the use of civilians as human mine sweepers.
The groups also point out that revenues from the Yadana project have been associated with weapons purchases by the military. In particular, they point to the acquisition of 10 Russian MIG fighter jets and helicopters.
Total insists that since the start of its operations in Burma it has always maintained extreme vigilance to guarantee that international law, human rights and the company’s own code of conduct have always been respected in the area of the Yadana pipeline.
“To do this, Total has acted with conviction and efficiency to eradicate all forms of forced labour in the area where it operates, and has regularly expressed concerns about unlawful practices to the Burmese authorities. I would remind you that forced labour is unlawful in Burma,” says Gateau.
Critics, however, are unimpressed and are gearing up for a full assault on the French oil giant. Jackson says the groups plan to make the Total brand very much linked in the public’s mind with the dictatorship.
“We are calling for them to get out. It would be the biggest blow so far to business confidence in the country if they were to do so,” he claims. The groups aim to make the new campaign against Total dwarf the scale of previous campaigns against such companies as Premier Oil, PepsiCo, Heineken, British American Tobacco, and Triumph International, which have all been forced to pull out the country.
“We will be lobbying Total shareholders, European governments and taking high-profile actions,” warns Jackson.
Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Burma’s democracy movement and Nobel Peace Prize winner, has repeatedly called on companies such as Total to leave Burma. “Total has become the main supporter of the Burmese military regime,” she has said.
She recently began her 10th year under house arrest, is allowed no visitors, her phone line has been cut and her mail is intercepted. At present, there appears to be no prospect of her being released and fear is growing for her safety.
Jackson says in France there is a significant body of opinion developing calling on Total to leave Burma. “We have got a significant amount of evidence that Total had knowledge of human rights abuses and that they have compensated the victims of forced labour.
“We also believe that Total has paid, via its contract with MOGE, for the Burmese army to offer security protection in the general area of the Yadana pipeline. The military just feeds off the local population just a few kilometres away from the line,” he claims.
Gateau, however, denies that Total has any arrangement with MOGE regarding the security of the Yadana pipeline.
“The pipeline is buried and we do not employ the army to protect something for us. We have two metering stations on the line that are protected by a fence and we use our own security guards,” he adds.
Jackson says investors should be concerned over the recent court cases taken by Burmese groups against Total in Belgium and France that could prove costly for the company.
Gateau insists Total is “really confident” about the outcome of the two legal cases taken against it in Belgium and France. “With respect to our reputation, we believe we are doing a lot of good things for Burma.”
Opponents see it differently. “For 15 years, Total has argued for constructive engagement,” Jackson complains. “The problem is that its investments do not trickle down to the population, but instead go to the regime, which just increases its military capacity and oppression.”
Total counters that it has spent about $12 million on socio-economic programmes in the area of the Yadana pipeline since 1995. It says to date about 45,000 people living in the area of the pipeline have taken advantage of these programmes.
“Yes, we have made every effort to compensate when we have come across any cases of forced relocation or forced labour,” Gateau says.
Paul Monaghan, head of sustainable development at Co-operative Financial Services, says: “There are many oppressive regimes around the world. However, Burma presents a combination of circumstances that make a particularly compelling case for action.
“The Co-operative Bank and Co-operative Insurance Society look forward to a progressive response from Total and others involved in Burma.”