When shareholders of the multinational company Chevron gather for their annual meeting in the U.S. city of Houston in late May, they will come face to face with Naing Htoo, whose community has suffered due to the exploits of the energy giant in military-ruled Burma.
"I want to expose what has gone on as a result of Chevron’s investments in Burma," says the 30-year-old from the Karen ethnic minority. "The shareholders need to know where their money is going and the suffering it is causing."
Naing Htoo is hardly daunted by the challenge that lies ahead – his first opportunity to address Chevron’s shareholders about the controversial Yadana natural gas pipeline in southern Burma. "It is an opportunity to use for change," he tells IPS of the window opened to him to address Chevron’s shareholders between May 27 and 28.
The Karen activist’s foray into U.S. corporate culture is timed to add pressure on Chevron shareholders. They are due to vote at the annual meeting on a proposal that would "require the company to disclose payments to foreign governments, including the junta in Burma," states EarthRights International (ERI), a Washington D.C.-based environment and rights lobby group.
But pressure on Chevron to be more transparent about its financial dealings in Burma is expected to mount from other quarters, too. A groundbreaking bill before the U.S. Congress that has bi-partisan support could, if passed, compel companies profiting from oil, gas and mining to reveal details of payments to governments of countries they have invested in around the world.
The reach of the ‘Energy Security through Transparency Act’ for full financial disclosure is not limited to U.S.-based companies in the energy sector. The law will also force all foreign oil, gas and mining companies registered with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to open their books for scrutiny.
"The legislation pending in the Congress is unique," says Mathew Smith, coordinator of the Burma project for ERI. "It would also apply to large corporations registered with the SEC from China, India and South Korea, which have investments in Burma. It would have a wide, sweeping impact."
With an eye on such landmark legislation, a global campaign was launched on Apr. 27 calling on Chevron, the French-based oil giant Total and a subsidiary of Thailand’s state-owned gas and oil company to publish "over 18 years of payments to the Burmese military regime."
Over 160 non-governmental organisations, labour unions, investment firms scholars and political leaders, including the former prime minister of Norway and the former president of Ireland, have signed on to this campaign for financial transparency in Burma, officially known as Myanmar.
A two-page statement by the ‘Call for Total, Chevron and PTTEP to Practice Revenue Transparency in Burma’ is urging the companies to publish "comprehensive data and information". That includes taxes, fees, royalties and bonuses paid to Burmese authorities since 1992, when the contract for the Yadana gas pipeline was signed.
Taxes paid by Total to the Burmese junta in 2008 offered a glimpse at the pipeline’s substantial contribution to the junta’s coffers. This unprecedented public disclosure of the 254 million U.S. dollars in taxes the regime earned was made the following year, in 2009.
"This is commendable but not enough. We want detailed disaggregated figures of all payments to the Burmese regime," Smith tells IPS. "Revenue transparency is a basic element of corporate social responsibility."
Chevron’s reluctance to disclose the income it generates for the junta goes against its transparent practice elsewhere, argues Smith. "Chevron is transparent about its finances in its investments in Thailand and it is commonly available in the U.S."
Critics of the controversial pipeline have stated that its income has been to the absolute benefit of a repressive regime, with barely a trickle for the South-east Asian nation’s beleaguered people. From 2000, when gas production started, till 2008, the junta earned an estimated eight billion U.S. dollars from gas sales.
The area home to the Karens, where the pipeline snakes through, has hardly benefited. Villages along the pipeline’s route, from the offshore natural gas in the Andaman Sea to Thailand, still lack electricity and depend on candles and lamps for light.
But the Karens, who are one of the country’s 130 ethnic minorities, have suffered more since the inception of this controversial pipeline in 1991 to meet Thailand’s energy demands. Burmese soldiers assigned to provide security during the constriction of the pipeline and since have been fingered for a range of human rights and environmental abuses.
This heavily militarised area, which at one time saw 14 battalions operate, also saw rape and torture of Karen villagers. "These human rights violations continue even today," reveals Naing Htoo, the Karen activist.
"Multinational companies doing business in Burma can help change this even if the regime is reluctant," says Wong Aung, coordinator of the Shwe Gas Movement, an organisation of Burmese activists opposed to another oil and gas pipeline project with Chinese investment to feed China’s energy demands. "Revenue transparency is the way."
"It must be practised for the citizens of Burma, who can use the information to monitor the government’s use of natural resource wealth and demand accountability where none presently exists," he explains. "If the Shwe gas project goes ahead, the regime will earn 29 billion U.S. dollars in a 30-year period."
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