Apr 12, 2021
Translated from Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle), the newspaper of the revolutionary workers’ group active in France.
Since the February 1 military coup in Myanmar (formerly Burma) and the bloody crackdown that followed, French gas corporation Total has kept silent, like many other firms. Total has operated a natural gas field there for 30 years. Finally, during a forum on April 3, CEO Patrick Pouyanné explained why Total will not divest from Myanmar.
Total has been a major contributor to the country’s government for three decades. Its gas subsidiary—registered in tax haven Bermuda—won Myanmar’s official award last August for biggest foreign business taxpayer for fiscal year 2019–2020.
The CEO began by asserting that Total has paid no taxes or duties to the military junta since the coup. But this goes without saying because, quite simply, the banking system is no longer functioning, particularly due to a strike affecting the banks. But as for the future, he also said, “Not paying taxes is a crime in Myanmar.... It would put those in charge at our branch at risk of arrest and prison.” So it’s more ethical for a capitalist to finance an army which has already assassinated 560 protesters and imprisoned thousands of opponents!
His second argument: “How could we stop production when our gas supplies electricity to a large population in Rangoon, and stopping it would add to the daily hardship of its inhabitants?” It takes the cynicism of Total executives to hide the fact that much of the gas does not benefit the local population at all, like much of the country’s vast natural resources. The gas is mostly exported. As for electricity, less than half the population has access to it. Fewer than two in five homes are connected to the national grid. Many residents use solar power kits to charge their cell phones. Electricity prices have skyrocketed in recent years.
His final argument: “Last but not least, even if we decided to halt production to protest against the situation in Burma, we could put our contractors in a drastic situation: that of forced labor.”
In terms of forced labor, Total knows what it is talking about. In 1992, Total signed a contract to exploit gas deposits in Yadana with the Myanmar State Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), a commercial business associated with the army. The regime had just massacred 3,000 pro-democracy demonstrators in 1988 and still refused to recognize its defeat in the 1990 elections.
With the signing of such contracts, the living conditions of local populations, mostly small farmers and fishermen who lived in the gas pipeline region, were disrupted. Many villages were displaced. The entire area was militarized to guarantee Total’s operations.
According to a 2005 report by the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH), “during the construction of the pipeline in 1995–1996 … the use of forced labor was particularly prevalent, as the military used thousands of civilians, including children, the elderly and the infirm, to perform forced labor for the benefit of the pipeline, including the construction of service roads and helipads, military camps.... Village heads were called on to send forced laborers on a rotational basis.” In its defense, Total indicated that “when cases of forced labor were brought to its attention, [Total] helped the victims or their families by donations in money or in kind and [made] sure the money reached them.” With the same hypocrisy, the CEO is now proposing “to pay non-profit associations working for human rights in Burma the equivalent of the taxes that we would actually have to pay to the Burmese government.”
Total and all the big capitalist firms which exploit the natural resources and the workers of Myanmar are not only complicit in the dictatorship. They have been its main beneficiaries for decades.