Bad business for Burma - Matthew F. Smith
- From: "labour" <twenti@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Tue, 5 Apr 2011 21:57:34 -0700
April 3, International Herald Tribune
Bad business for Burma - Matthew F. Smith
The Burmese pro-democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi recently urged Western
nations to maintain economic sanctions against Myanmar, where the world's
longest-running military dictatorship is tightening its repressive ways:
Over 2,000 prisoners of conscience languish behind bars in squalid
conditions, while arbitrary arrests and detentions, extrajudicial killings,
torture and other abuses continue to be widespread and systematic,
particularly in ethnic areas.
Nevertheless, Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi's message is not without controversy. It
comes just weeks before the European Union will revisit its hotly debated
sanctions policy, and a few disquieted Western policymakers, corporate
executives and think tanks are advocating for economic engagement with the
reclusive generals and their cronies. Sanctions policy is not only
antiquated, ineffective, and hurtful to the Burmese people, they argue, it
also gives the upper hand to China, which is sending companies to Burma with
abandon, especially for big-ticket energy projects tapping natural gas
Beijing has at least 16 oil and gas companies invested in 21 onshore and
offshore projects in Burma, far more than any other country. Until now,
there's been very little information available about these projects, the
largest of which are dual gas and oil pipelines under construction from
western Burma to the Chinese border, led by the state-controlled China
National Petroleum Corporation and Korea's Daewoo International.
Passing rugged mountains, dense jungles, arid plains, important rivers and a
number of contested territories and population densities in Burma, the
500-mile-long pipelines will enable Beijing to bypass the vulnerable Strait
of Malacca and supply gas and oil directly to landlocked Yunnan Province.
Leaked documents and clandestine interviews with affected populations along
the project route in Burma confirm that the Burmese military is responsible
for guarding the pipelines and related infrastructure, and for committing
serious human rights violations in connection to the projects.
The most common violation so far is land confiscation and forced or coerced
evictions. Families have been stripped of their means of subsistence - their
land - with little or no compensation, making them instantly more vulnerable
to the trappings of poverty and abuse in the militarized state.
"I don't have enough rice for my family," said one farmer who lost the land
his family cultivated for generations. "I worry for my family."
Violent abuses are also happening. "They blindfolded me and put me in a
car," an Arakanese man reported, referring to Burma's Military
Intelligence, "I'm not sure where they drove." This man was tortured
brutally for four days in a windowless room before standing trial on
trumped-up charges with no defense lawyer.
Not that legal representation would have mattered. In proceedings that he
says lasted five minutes, a Burmese judge sentenced him to six months in the
notorious Insein Prison, where he survived appalling conditions before going
into hiding. His crime: leading two community-level training sessions to
raise awareness about the pipelines.
Unsurprisingly, in a multitude of interviews, not one villager expressed
support for the pipelines.
Perhaps of greatest concern for Burma's development is that the projects
will generate billions of dollars annually through gas sales, taxes, fees,
royalties and production bonuses. If the past is any judge, those revenues
will accrue to the military rulers and serve to widen the gap between the
haves and the have-nots. Burma already ranks as the world's second most
corrupt country, beating only Somalia, according to Transparency
International, which publishes a widely cited corruption perception index.
Barring targeted action from the international community, revenues from
these pipelines will likely remain outside the national budget and tucked
away in offshore bank accounts held in trust for the military rulers and
their closed network of political and economic elite. Despite billions of
dollars in export gas sales already coming in, new schools and hospitals are
few and far between in resource-rich Burma, but luxury homes and expensive
cars for the ruling elite and their families abound.
As sanctions policies are revisited, Western oil and mining companies
shouldn't assume they have the answers for Burma's development or that they
can do better than China. No matter how well intentioned a company may be,
no matter how responsible, constructing new energy projects in Burma's
contested ethnic territories with the backing of the Burmese Army is bound
to be violent, and enormous revenue flows into military coffers will do more
to perpetuate authoritarianism than to promote positive change, regardless
of where those revenues come from.
Barring meaningful political changes, new energy projects in today's Burma
are simply not good business - for China, the West, or the people of Burma,
regardless of any sanctions policy.
Matthew F. Smith is a senior consultant with EarthRights International,
which represented Burmese plaintiffs in Doe v. Unocal Corporation.
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