The Yadana natural gas pipeline runs from gas fields in the warm waters of the Andaman Sea through a sliver of southern Burma and into Thailand. It also runs through the heart of the debate on corporate responsibility as to how foreign businesses should operate in a country ruled by a military dictatorship accused of widespread human rights abuses and violent suppression of dissent within its borders.
Following two weeks of protests lead by Buddhist monks against the military junta lead by General Than Shwe, the Burmese government's ferocious subsequent clampdown has shone a particularly bright spotlight on the activities of Total S.A., the French oil company that served as the driving force behind the Yadana pipeline and which continues to be deeply involved in Burma.
"Total is involved in what is essentially the single largest foreign investment project in Burma, the single largest source of hard currency for the regime," says Marco Simons, the U.S. legal director for EarthRights International, an organisation working on documenting human rights and environmental abuses. "They have entered into a direct business relationship with the Burmese military."
The Yadana pipeline was constructed by Total through the 1990s in partnership with the U.S. petroleum company Unocal (which merged with the Chevron Corporation in 2005 and ended operations as an independent company), along with the wholly state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) and Thailand's PTT Exploration and Production Public Company Limited (PTTEP), at the time state-owned but now largely privatised.
Burma's State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) military rulers renamed the country Myanmar in 1989.
From the outset, accusations swirled around the project that it was conducted under conditions of extreme coercion against the local population.
In the wake of recent protests, a group of Burmese refugees in Belgium succeeded earlier this month in getting a federal public prosecutor to reopen an investigation into the potential illegality of some of Total's actions in Burma, with the oil giant standing accused of, at best, turning a blind eye to widespread human rights abuses during the construction of the Yadana pipeline.
Last year a French court cleared Total of charges that slave labour helped it build the pipeline, following an out of court settlement with the alleged victims.
With video footage smuggled out of Burma showing military personnel apparently firing into crowds of unarmed protesters and savagely beating others, various groups are calling for companies such as Total to consider what their business is funding in the country.
"As one person in Rangoon described it to us, they are living in hell," says Mark Farmaner, media director of The Burma Campaign UK, an advocacy group formed in Britain in 1991 to push for progress on democracy and respect for human rights. "There is intense fear, people are afraid to move around, there are thousands of people in hiding and thousands in detention, and it's extraordinary that Total would have such a dictatorship as their business partner."
A recent statement by Total's vice-president for public affairs, Jean-Franšois Lassalle, carried on the company's website, had the following to say about the recent unrest.
"We are convinced that through our presence we are helping to improve the daily lives of tens of thousands of people who benefit from our social and economic initiatives. . . a forced withdrawal would only lead to our replacement by other operators probably less committed to the ethical principles guiding all our initiatives. Our departure could cause the population even greater hardship and is thus an unacceptable risk."
There was, however, no explicit condemnation of the Burmese government's actions, nor was there a call for restraint, even as Ibrahim Gambari, special envoy from the United Nations, arrived in Burma to express concern about the steps taken to quash the demonstrations.
Gambari has since met with both junta leader Shwe and with the country's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and is expected to make a formal report to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on his return to New York.
The French government itself, meanwhile, has been accused of only selectively condemning the violence in Burma.
When President Sarkozy called on French companies to "freeze" new investments there, it was viewed by some as a cynical end-run around the fact that Total, by its own admission, had made no new investments in Burma for several years.
In further cause for skepticism, BK conseil, the former company of France's current foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, advised Total in 2003 on improving the public face of its operations in Burma.
Formed as a one-off consulting concern by Kouchner and Total lawyer Jean Veil, Kouchner, who was the company's only official employee, visited the site of the Yadana pipeline in March 2003. He wrote a report in September 2003 exonerating the company of any wrongdoing. The report was carried on Total's website.
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