Oil Companies Financing Nuclear Threat in Burma, Refusing Transparency

06/10/2010 04:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The world has a new nuclear threat on its hands; the first ever in Southeast Asia.

According to a disturbing five-year study released Friday by the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), carried on Al Jazeera, and vetted by a nuclear scientist and former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the ruling military junta in Burma (Myanmar) is "mining uranium, converting it to uranium compounds for reactors and bombs, and is trying to build a reactor and or an enrichment plant that could only be useful for a bomb."

This follows a UN report leaked last month claiming North Korea is exporting nuclear and ballistic missile technology to Burma using intermediaries, shell companies, and overseas criminal networks designed to circumvent UN sanctions against Pyongyang.

A key question underlies the scandal: how could Burma, Southeast Asia's poorest country, possibly afford to finance a nuclear program?

The answer involves the military regime's partnerships with multinational companies, including some of the world's largest and best known oil firms from the US, France, Japan, China, India, Thailand and elsewhere.

In 2009, my colleagues and I at EarthRights International (ERI) calculated that the Yadana natural gas pipeline -- operated by the French oil giant Total, with the American company Chevron, and the Thai company PTTEP -- has generated nearly $8 billion dollars in gas sales since payments commenced just a decade ago. Transporting Burmese natural gas from the Andaman Sea across Burma to neighboring Thailand, ERI estimated that from 2000-2008, billions of dollars of that revenue went directly to Burma's ruling junta, a claim the companies have never denied.

Compounding the junta's notoriously low domestic spending on health and education, in 2009 we also documented that portions of the country's gas dollars found their way into private offshore bank accounts in Singapore, from where the money could be spent on any number of things, including perhaps nuclear technology.

According to a defected senior junta member interviewed by DVB in the documentary that aired on Aljazeera last week, "when [the regime] got that [gas] money, they started the nuclear project."

(This is to say nothing of the ongoing instances of forced labor, rape, torture, killings and other abuses we continue to document against local people in direct connection to the companies' pipeline).

Earlier this year, we traveled to Bangkok to launch an international campaign urging Total, Chevron, and PTTEP to practice complete revenue transparency in Burma and to publish all the data surrounding their last 18 years of payments to the Burmese regime. The campaign is backed by over 160 world leaders, NGOs, unions, scholars, and investment firms, including global leaders like Mary Robinson, Kjell Magne Bondevik, and Kerry Kennedy. It occurred to us that only a monumental degree of intransigence from the companies would lead them to deny the reasonable request for transparency from such a diverse and powerful coalition -- but that's exactly what happened.

About two weeks ago, Total and Chevron released statements effectively saying they had no plans to practice revenue transparency in Burma and no plans to cooperate with the initiative. Had they cooperated, they would have been the first ever companies to practice revenue transparency in the notoriously repressive country.

Curiously, however, the companies cited different reasons for their secrecy. Chevron claimed they're contractually restricted from publishing their payments, while Total implied simply that the regime didn't want them to practice transparency.

Chevron's argument -- that its "contractual obligations related to the Yadana Project do not permit disclosure of payments or other confidential information relative to the Project" -- is simply inconsistent with the company's actual contracts with the junta, which Unocal (now Chevron) disclosed during the partial trial in the human rights suit Doe v. Unocal Corp. In those contracts, there's nothing that would prevent revenue transparency. Moreover, Unocal also chose to disclose dozens of actual payment records to the junta -- records that were introduced at trial as part of Unocal's defense -- without suggesting that their defense was hampered by contracts that required confidentiality. So unless the relevant contracts have changed significantly, or unless Unocal violated court orders in Doe v. Unocal and withheld key documents, Chevron appears to be misleading the public and its shareholders about its contractual obligations in Burma.

Total's markedly different tack is equally concerning. While privately the companies claim the same contractual restrictions as Chevron, now publicly they simply imply, in exceedingly vague terms, that the Burmese authorities might be averse to their transparency ("Total cannot disclose any financial or contractual information if the host country is opposed to such disclosure").

Either way, it appears both Chevron and Total would simply prefer to hide their payments to the world's newest nuclear threat.

Which raises the question: Just how real is the nuclear threat?

The story surfaced in 2009 after a two-year investigation by notable author and journalist Phil Thornton and prominent Australian National University scholar Desmond Ball. Drawing on radio intercepts and a series of interviews with key defectors from Burma, the duo demonstrated that the uncomfortable rumors circulating through intelligence communities were credible: Burma's nuclear intent is real. Their conclusion was that if all accounts surrounding Burma's clandestine program were true, the regime would eventually be able to arm itself with nuclear warheads.

Any existing doubts are now fading fast. The DVB report released last week reflects thousands of top secret internal documents and photographs smuggled out of the closed country by a senior defector from Burma's military ranks. The evidence is clear and damning. Not only is the xenophobic regime constructing an intricate tunnel system throughout the country at exorbitant costs and with the help of North Korea, but it's also developing long-range missiles and nuclear technologies that would only be used for weapons.

The current president of the IAEA Yikiya Amano claims that the UN watchdog group is now looking into the reports and if necessary will seek some clarifications from the junta, and Ban Ki Moon's Special Advisor on Burma just arrived in Singapore for talks with the authorities there about the situation in the country.

A principal concern is that if Burma is capable of long range missile strikes and weapons of mass destruction, the security dynamic in Asia will alter significantly, from India to China and beyond. It would be hard to imagine such a necessary shift in governments' priorities could ever benefit the region's least advantaged citizens, let alone the people of Burma.

Perhaps now that the geopolitical stakes are higher, Total and Chevron can finally be persuaded to start practicing disaggregated revenue transparency in the country. At this point, it'll be difficult to interpret their continued secrecy as anything but nefarious.