More smart sanctions
Bangkok Post、 1 March 2008
More smart sanctions
Almost six months after the start of a courageous period of civil disobedience that ended in brutal suppression, with the whole world watching, the world’s resolve to finally take a stand in Burma has withered to the point of insignificance. The generals in the new capital of Pyinmana have been able to put off United Nations efforts led by its Special Envoy on Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, to move forward with democratisation and release opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. It was recently announced that there would be a long-awaited referendum on a new constitution in May and general elections in 2010, but the constitution is seen as being contrived to keep the real power in the hands of the military, and Aung San Suu Kyi has already been forbidden to stand in the election.
In this context, the United States should be commended for at least trying to maintain political pressure on the generals with the announcement of new sanctions. There is considerable debate over whether sanctions are effective, especially since they are not imposed multilaterally, and also on whether they may not be harmful to ordinary Burmese citizens.
In response, Washington’s new “smart sanctions” are designed to target specific generals and their associated business interests. The latest sanctions apply to associates and relatives of Tay Za, who the US Treasury described as an arms dealer and financier of the regime, and the Htoo Group of Companies, which according to the US government acts on behalf of the military regime, including buying military equipment.
US-based businesses have long been forbidden from doing business in Burma, but there is one curious exception.
Chevron Corporation owns a 28% stake in the Yadana natural gas field and pipeline, which supplies gas to Thailand. Chevron is given the exception due to a “grandfather clause” in the sanctions, granted because the company was doing business in Burma before the imposition of sanctions. This is like saying that since the company has a long and distinguished tradition of propping up the military regime, by all means it should be allowed to continue doing so.
This exception threatens to make a mockery of the whole US sanctions policy, and once again shows where the true priorities are.
The Yadana gas field has been strongly implicated in government human rights abuses in the past, although it should be noted that Chevron’s role in Burma is primarily investment.
Chevron defends its involvement in Burma in a statement which describes a model socio-economic programme by project partners which it says has, among other benefits, brought free and improved health care to 50,000 people along the pipeline and built 44 new schools. (For the full statement see http://www.chevron.com/news/press/Release/?id=2007-10-02).
Like all statistics coming out of Burma, these figures are hard to verify independently, but Chevron may have a point when it says active engagement is the best way to bring about political change. However, it is not clear that the company has done anything to actually promote democratisation.
According to Human Rights Watch, natural gas sales are the government’s single largest source of income, which is primarily used to maintain the military machine and line the pockets of those in power. The threat of withdrawal of Chevron’s resources could be a powerful incentive for negotiation with the opposition.
More realistically, the company could be required by the US government to take an incremental approach. For example, to withdraw 10% of its resources if all political parties, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, are not allowed full participation in the 2010 elections. Similarly, Thailand could threaten to cut its gas purchase by 10%, which could be made up elsewhere.
Without such sacrifices, which ideally would include India and China, it appears unlikely that anything will change in Burma.