Mass call for Burma gas transparency

A grouping of NGOs led by the US-based EarthRights International (ERI) today called on oil giants Total and Chevron to publish the details of contracts they hold with the Burmese junta.

The Petroleum Authority of Thailand Exploration and Production (PTTEP) was also targeted in the initiative, which has received more than 160 signatories. These include labour unions, investment firms, scholars and world leaders, including the former Irish president Mary Robinson and Norwegian prime minister Kjell Magne Bondevik.

“The time for revenue transparency is now,” the head of ERI’s Burma program, Mathew Smith, told a press conference today in Bangkok.

The three companies were involved with the junta’s Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) in building the Yadana gas pipeline that carries natural gas to Thailand, via the Three Gorges Pass, to power Bangkok. The companies initially signed deals with MOGE in 1992.

“They can practice transparency but they’re not,” Smith said of the companies who have refused to disclose revenues to shareholders.

ERI obtained contracts that were submitted as evidence in litigation taken by human rights activists against the companies. Crucially, however, there is nothing in the contracts that would necessitate the companies keeping such details secret.

The panel, made up of Smith and Naing Htoo, both of ERI, and Wong Aung from the Shwe Gas Movement (SGM) advocacy group, noted that the transparency was also good for investors: “Sunshine is the best antiseptic for the extractive industries,” claimed Smith.

A statement from anti-corruption group Transparency International, also a signatory, noted that revenue transparency would “help the companies and their home states avoid the appearance of complicity in mismanagement of the gas revenue generated for the Burmese authorities, which could also raise shareholder value”.

ERI state that “shining a light on this is critical for Burma’s future development, and for the responsible management of the country’s vast resource wealth”. It notes that Burma has the highest poverty levels and lowest social spending in the region.

The group estimates that Total made around $US5 billion worth of profits from when the pipeline went ‘online’ in 2000 and 2008, and they paid the junta $US254 million in 2008 alone.

Naing Htoo became involved in the Yadana campaign after he had to flee his native Karen state following Burmese army operations in the path of the Yadana pipeline. The panel and numerous groups allege that Burmese troops were responsible for rape, pillage and wanton human rights abuses. These were the subject of trials brought against the companies in the United States.

He added that “the people of Burma have a right to know the financial details surrounding the country’s natural resources, including payments made by foreign oil companies”, adding that “these resources could have improved the lives of the people so much”.

The junta spends around $US1.25 per person per year on health and education; more than three times less than they receive from Total alone in a single year.

Such concerns regarding transparency, accountability, corporate practice and human rights are only likely to intensify as the Shwe gas pipeline to China comes closer to completion, expected in 2014.

Smith believes however that transparency from the companies involved with the Yadana project can help to encourage companies such as Daewoo from Korea, China National Petroleum corporation (CNPC) and India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, all of which have deals with the junta, to be more transparent in their respective operations.

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