France wavers over full EU sanctions on Burma

May 22, 2009 (DVB), France has voiced concerns that the proposed ramping-up of EU sanctions on Burma would hit French oil company Total and therefore a significant proportion of the Burmese population who depend on it for natural gas.

Speaking to French parliament on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Benard Kouchner warned that imposing new sanctions on the regime could have far-reaching consequences.

"The only serious economic lever would obviously be Total," he said, adding that any decision would be decided at the "highest level of state".

"That would mean cutting off gas supplies to a good part of the Burmese population, not to mention the city of Bangkok, since the gas goes to Thailand."

The current package of European Union sanctions on Burma do not include bans on investing in Burma's vast offshore natural gas reserves.

Discussions on sanctions have gathered pace recently, particularly in light of the trial of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, with some EU members arguing that sanctions should be toughened.

Yet the comments were countered by advocacy group EarthRights International (ERI), who have a special project set up to monitor the oil and gas industry in Burma. ERI do not advocate either for or against sanctions.

"I think it is accurate to say that nearly all of the gas is exported from Burma, so very little, stays in the country," said Burma Project coordinator Matthew Smith, adding that it would also have only a minor impact on supplies to Bangkok.

Total is France’s most profitable company, and has been a major investor in Burma's Yadana gas field since 1992.

ERI have called the Yadana pipeline project a "human rights disaster" and "one of the world's most controversial natural gas development projects".

Cases of torture, rape, forced labour and murder by security forces guarding the pipeline are well documented.

Kouchner added that a "firm stand" on Total should be taken, but did not specify whether or not the French government wanted the company to leave Burma.

Reporting by Rosalie Smith and AFP

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