Amid military atrocities, Burmese public calls for gas sanctions

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) – The young woman in Myanmar decided to speak out when she realized that the money for the company she loved was now in the hands of the military leaders she hated.

She worked for Total Energies, the French company that operates a gas field off the coast of Myanmar with a state-owned company. But in February, the military took control of the Myanmar government and its bank accounts, including those that receive hundreds of millions of dollars each year from the Yadana gas field.

As military abuses such as the murder and detention of thousands escalated, the young woman joined others across Myanmar in a wave of support for targeted sanctions against oil and gas funds, the most great source of foreign currency income of the country. But Western governments – notably the United States and France – have refused to take this step amid lobbying from energy company officials and resistance from countries like Thailand, which obtains gas from Myanmar. The United States on Friday announced a series of sanctions against several Myanmar officials and entities, but once again sidelined oil or gas revenues.

The young woman has since lost her job. And later, after protesting the military takeover of her country, she was thrown in jail for three weeks.

“I am very disappointed by Total because they neglect this country in which they have invested,” says the young woman, whose name is hidden by the Associated Press to protect her from reprisals by the military.

Total and energy giant Chevron, which is also a partner of Yadana, say they are trying to protect their employees in Myanmar, and also to maintain crucial gas supplies for people in Myanmar and Thailand.

In August, Burmese activists launched the “Campaign for Blood Money” movement, risking their lives by walking the streets and carrying signs that read: “Freeze payments to the junta and save Myanmar”. The leading UN human rights expert in Myanmar said millions of people across the country impose personal sanctions by withholding taxes, refusing to pay electricity bills and boycotting related products In the Army. And on November 30, hundreds of human rights organizations in Myanmar joined their international colleagues in signing a letter asking the CEO of Total to stop payments to accounts controlled by the military.

The PA also obtained a copy of a letter from Yadana workers to their management calling on Total’s subsidiary Total E&P Myanmar to suspend export payments to the military and place the funds in a secure account.

The activists are not looking to shut down the gas field, but to put the income in an offshore bank account that the military cannot touch. The sanctions would target the state-owned Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), which is a joint venture partner in all offshore gas projects in Myanmar, including Yadana with Total, Chevron and PTT Exploration & Production in Thailand. Total owns a majority stake in the company and manages its day-to-day operations, while MOGE collects the revenues on behalf of the government.

About 50% of Myanmar’s foreign exchange comes from natural gas revenues, with MOGE expected to earn $ 1.5 billion from offshore projects and pipelines in 2021-2022, according to a forecast from the Myanmar government. The Yadana gas project and pipeline generated revenues of approximately $ 400 million in 2017-18.

Yet neither US President Joe Biden nor French President Emmanuel Macron has publicly opposed Myanmar’s oil and gas revenues.

In response to questions from the PA, the US State Department revealed a list of other people and entities that the US has already sanctioned, including military officials and a state-owned gem company.

“We will not hesitate to take further action against those who commit violence and suppress the will of the people,” the department said in a statement.

A contributor to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee admitted that oil and gas was “a huge part” of the military’s ability to maintain control. But a measure introduced in the House in October that specifically designates the MOGE as a potential target of sanctions has yet to move forward.

The aide, who requested anonymity to describe the thinking around the legislation, said objections from Singapore and Thailand played a role in the Biden administration’s reluctance to impose new sanctions, while like the lobbying of Chevron. Singapore’s banks are accused by activists of holding assets in the name of the military, although Singapore denied in February that it had “significant funds from Burmese businesses and individuals.”

In the first half of 2021, Chevron said it spent $ 3.7 million on federal lobbying in the United States, with “Burma’s energy issues” and “Myanmar’s energy and investment issues” listed as specific lobbying issues.

In response to questions from the PA, a spokesperson for Chevron pointed to an earlier statement by the company that Chevron would comply with any sanctions imposed by the United States.

“Any action must be carefully considered to ensure that the people of Myanmar are not further disadvantaged by the unintended and unforeseeable consequences of well-meaning decisions,” Chevron wrote in his May statement.

The French government says it is ruling out sanctions on oil and gas because it wants to avoid increasing the burden on Burmese civilians and targeting junta individuals rather than a vital economic sector. France also wishes to “remain involved on the ground”, which requires “operational contacts” with the Burmese administration, according to a senior official of the French presidency.

French authorities told activists that Europe expects to impose a fourth round of sanctions by February 1, the anniversary of the military takeover, and that the energy and the bank are on the table.

Total said in a statement that it is trying to protect its employees in Myanmar from reprisals such as forced labor. Total also says it must pay taxes and legally respect its contract, and will donate the equivalent of taxes to human rights groups in Myanmar. Total has canceled exploration for new deposits in Myanmar after the military takeover.

“The facts are that in order to shut down this source of income, gas production must be stopped,” the statement said. “Any cut-off of such a gas supply … must be seen in light of the consequences it could have on the daily lives of local citizens. “

But several Myanmar workers interviewed by AP dismissed concerns about their well-being, arguing that the entire country is already oppressed. And MOGE can be sanctioned without interrupting the flow of energy, said Tom Andrews, the UN special rapporteur on Myanmar.

Activists say it is unreasonable for a company to help fund an army that has engaged in the mass torture and enforced disappearance of thousands of people.

The military told the PA that state revenues are used for education, infrastructure and public service, and are also used “proportionately for the rule of law and defense.”

“Imposing restrictions on the current government directly affects the social and economic life of citizens,” the military said in a statement to the PA.


Gelineau reported from Sydney and Hinnant reported from Paris. AP Business writer Elaine Kurtenbach in Bangkok and correspondent Ben Fox in Washington contributed to this report.

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