Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Companies still in Burma should put up or get out

No one likes to say so, but ethics is hit or miss in the business community.

Last October, while the Burmese military junta was suppressing protests by Buddhist monks against rising fuel costs, World Report named five Canadian companies doing business with the regime: CHC Helicopter Corporation (Richmond, BC), Ivanhoe Mines (Vancouver), Jet Gold Corp (Vancouver), Leeward Capital Corp (Calgary), and Taiga Consultant Ltd (also Calgary). The Burma Campaign for Human Rights and Democracy in Burma still lists those companies on its dirty list. The Bank of Nova Scotia remains the only Canadian company to have either pulled out or made a principled decision not to become involved.

Folks dreaming of a Democratic victory in the US elections this year may recall that at that time, John McCain introduced a bill in the Senate to ban Chevron from continuing to hold a minority stake in the Yadana gas field in southern Burma. So Republican-style conservatives do not object to telling the lean mean private sector where to get off.

While French President Sarkozy indicated that he did not want Total, the main company behind the Yadana project, to increase its activities, France moved to protect investments the company had already made. French officials insisted that EU sanctions should not hurt Total's operations.

Revenues from gas, $2 billion in 2006, provide the largest source of income for the Burmese military. Most of that gas originates from Yetagun and Yadana.

Both India and China are keen to get their hands on Burma's oil and gas and both have invested in developing infrastructure there. There was some early suggestion, in the wake of Cyclone Nargis that the Chinese might prevail on the Burmese to let in UN relief workers. But neither the government nor its companies had any discernible effect.

According to der Spiegel, "India is also looking for military help from Burma to control its unruly minorities in its remote north-east corner.

EU governments banned Burmese imports of precious metals, gemstones and timber and restricted banking and financial transactions involving Burmese authorities or companies. But the failed to prevent the Burmese generals from using the world's leading global network for cross-border financial transfers, Swift. Swift has its headquarters in Belgium.

Andrew Crane and Dirk Matten, a couple of professors at the Schulich School of Business in York University, Toronto suggest that now is the time for any companies still doing business in Burma "to start rolling up their sleeves."

Companies involved in Burma argue that they can benefit ordinary people more by investing there than divesting. Crane and Matten suggest now is the time to demonstrate some concrete proof that their business links can bring positive social benefits to the Burmese people.

They identify Caterpillar (USA), China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC), Daewoo International Corporation (Korea), Siemens (Germany), Gas Authority of India (GAIL), GlaxoSmithKline (UK), Hyundai (Korea), and Total (France) as companies still having operations in Burma. (The International Trade Union Confederation)
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