Amid military atrocities, Myanmar public urges gas sanctions

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — The young woman in Myanmar decided to speak out when she realized that money from 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 Myanmar’s coast with a state-owned enterprise. But in February, the military took over Myanmar’s 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 grew, the young woman joined others across Myanmar in a groundswell of support for targeted sanctions on oil and gas funds, the country’s single largest source of foreign currency revenue. But Western governments — most notably the United States and France — have refused to take that step amid lobbying from energy company officials and resistance from countries such as Thailand, which gets gas from Myanmar. On Friday, the U.S. announced a raft of sanctions against several Myanmar officials and entities, but again left out oil or gas revenues.

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

“I feel very disappointed in Total because they are neglecting this country in which they invested,” says the young woman, whose name is being withheld by The Associated Press to protect her from retaliation by the military.

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

In August, Myanmar activists launched the “Blood Money Campaign” movement, risking their lives by marching in the streets and carrying signs that read: “Freeze payments to junta and save Myanmar.” The United Nations’ top expert on human rights in Myanmar says millions of people across the country are imposing personal sanctions by withholding taxes, refusing to pay power bills and boycotting products linked to the military. And on Nov. 30, hundreds of human rights organizations in Myanmar joined their international colleagues in signing a letter asking Total’s CEO to stop payments to military-controlled accounts.

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

Activists are looking not to shut down the gas field, but to place revenues in an offshore bank account that the military can’t 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 Thailand’s PTT Exploration & Production. Total has a majority stake in the venture and runs its daily operations, while MOGE collects revenues on behalf of the government.

About 50 percent of Myanmar’s foreign currency comes from natural gas revenues, with MOGE expected to earn $1.5 billion from offshore and pipeline projects in 2021-2022, according to a Myanmar government forecast. The Yadana gas project and pipeline earned around $400 million in revenues in 2017-2018.

Yet neither U.S. President Joe Biden nor French President Emmanuel Macron have publicly moved against Myanmar’s oil and gas revenues.

In response to questions from the AP, the U.S. State Department pointed to a list of other people and entities the U.S. has already sanctioned, including military officials and a state-owned gems enterprise.

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

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that the Biden administration is weighing tough new sanctions on Myanmar to pressure the country’s military leaders to restore a democratic path.

An aide on the House Foreign Affairs Committee acknowledged that oil and gas make up “a huge chunk” of the military’s ability to maintain control. But a measure introduced in the House in October that specifically calls out MOGE as a potential sanctions target has yet to advance.

The aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the thinking around the legislation, said objections from Singapore and Thailand have played a role in the Biden administration’s hesitation to impose new sanctions, as has lobbying from Chevron. Singapore’s banks are accused by activists of holding assets on the military’s behalf, although Singapore denied in February that they had “significant funds from Myanmar companies and individuals.”

In the first half of 2021, Chevron reported spending $3.7 million on federal lobbying in the U.S., with “Burma Energy Issues” and “Myanmar Energy and Investment Issues” listed as specific lobbying issues of focus.

In response to questions from the AP, a spokesman for Chevron pointed to an earlier statement from the company, which said Chevron would comply with any sanctions imposed by the U.S.

“Any actions should be carefully considered to ensure the people of Myanmar are not further disadvantaged by unintended and unpredictable consequences of well-intentioned decisions,” Chevron wrote in its May statement.

The French government says it is excluding sanctions on oil and gas because it wants to avoid adding to the burdens of Myanmar civilians, and to target individuals from the junta rather than a vital economic sector. France also wants to “stay involved on the ground,” which requires “operational contacts” with Myanmar’s administration, according to a senior official in the French president’s office.

French authorities have told activists that Europe is expecting to impose a fourth round of sanctions by Feb. 1, the anniversary of the military’s takeover, and that both the energy and banking sectors are on the table.

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

Total said it would willingly comply with any new international sanctions, which would override local laws that govern its contracts in Myanmar.

“In particular, should MOGE be under economic sanctions it would oblige all parties to put all cash flows due to MOGE in an escrow account,” the company told AP in a statement. “We have taken all possible measures under our control and respecting the legal framework without putting our staff at risk.”

But some employees say the risk to them pales in comparison to the risk to the entire country. And MOGE can be sanctioned without interrupting the flow of energy, said Tom Andrews, the United Nations special rapporteur on Myanmar.

Activists say it’s unconscionable for any company to help fund a military that has engaged in mass torture and forcibly disappeared thousands.

The military told the AP that state revenue is used for education, infrastructure and public service, and is also used “proportionately for the rule of law and for defense.”

“Putting restrictions on the current government is directly affecting the social and economic life of the citizens,” the military said in a statement to the AP.

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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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