Oil, Burma, and why we can’t rely on governments.

Total's gas pipeline under construction in Burma

Total's gas pipeline under construction in Burma

It’s a long title for a complicated issue. A response from the Foreign Office on the human rights situation in Burma states that “democratic reform in Burma remains a high priority for the UK and for the Prime Minister personally” and goes on to say that they “remain deeply concerned about the human rights situation in Burma” and “call for the start of a genuine process of political reform.”

You can see the full response here.

Three days later (today), the Independent carries this report on the gains that Burma make from an oil deal with Total, the French-owned petrol giant. This revelation has made me realise several things:

1. The Burmese ‘government’ (military, brutal, undemocratic Junta) will never change as a result of local international pressure. While Britain may continue to “urge Burma’s neighbours, including India, China and those countries in the ASEAN, to use their influence to press for change in Burma”, these countries are unlikely to use their full weight to press for change. Even if they did, the military have been in power since 1962, and the current ruling junta in power since the late 1980s. They will not bow to the pressures of these more recent rulers (Hu Juitao became President of The People’s Republic of China in 2003, and Pratibha Patil became President of India in 2007), whether economic or political. Furthermore, they have no interest in pressing Burma. Neither India nor China, the only bordering countries to conceivably carry any weight (Come on – could Laos, Thailand, or Bangladesh achieve anything?), have any motivation for dealing with Burma. China is unlikely to pick a human rights fight, even with Burma, and India should probably be focussing on the state of Pakistan, which is politically in far more trouble than Burma.

2. The West has greater worries in the East beside the Burmese. I only need to mention Afghanistan, but recent examples of human rights progress, such as [Bill] Clinton’s success at freeing American journalists from North Korea was significant because it was North Korea. As harmful as they are, Burma is not a direct nuclear threat to Western governments, which puts it further down the list of priorities than other countries in Asia-Pacific.

3. This is probably the most important factor to consider, as it guarantees an immovable obstacle to all progress in the country: The Burmese will not be moved while they are able to make vast sums of money from their resources by selling them to international companies. I need cite no more evidence than today’s report (see above).

There it is. If you want to change Burma, the way to do so is not through its neighbours. It is not through international pressure, or sanctions, or even through our own government. Hitting them ‘where it hurts’ is out of control of politically elected officials and representatives. It is, however, within the power of the corporations and oil businesses. If they can give so much to the Burmese government, then they can take it away just as easily.

Is it possible to bring these companies into an agreement to aid the 2,000 political prisoners currently in the dungeons of the junta by seeking to change the government?

One thing is certain: Gone are the days when mere condemnation is enough to topple powers. Trying to do so now would be laughable.

The power is with the oil barons, and it is towards them that lobbying and reasoning must be directed.

2 comments

  1. Too right, but ethical oil companies are the hardest kind of ethical companies to come by. Im sure you are more like to find an ethical caring slave trader.
    Where there is oil there will be tension and such we need to take the need away. If they won’t play fair we won’t buy their fuel…

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  2. You mention how Britain wants ASEAN to try to influence Burma, but this will never happen. The most important principle of ASEAN is it’s policy of non interference.

    Britain has no right to ask ASEAN for this because the policy of noninterference comes from their fear of colonialism which was caused by Britain.

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