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Until recently, Myanmar (Burma) had made significant progress in emerging from decades of brutal military rule and transitioning towards democracy. Multinational companies had begun cautiously investing in the country. Once Myanmar’s military coup began on February 1, however, many multinationals suspended their operations or divested altogether. Yet the oil and gas industry — including Chevron, TotalEnergies, Posco, and PTTEP — has continued to order large sums of money to be paid into government accounts that are now controlled by the junta as if this were business as usual.

The military has committed a wide range of human rights atrocities during the coup, killing at least 1,295 people and arresting thousands more. As COVID surged to peak levels in July and August, the military used it as a weapon, arresting and attacking healthcare workers, seizing medical supplies, and denying life-saving care to perceived political opponents.

Solidarity protest in Washington, D.C. photo credit: Gayatri Malhorta

We can expect these atrocities to continue. The leader of the coup, Min Aung Hlaing, has a track record of unthinkable violence. The risk of a civil war is high — even before the coup, the military was engaged in armed conflict with the country’s ethnic groups. Through protests, strikes, and boycotts, millions of Myanmar citizens have signaled that they will not accept a return to the horrors of the previous military regime.

Sustaining a coup d’état is not cheap. The Myanmar military needs a steady stream of funding to continue its campaigns against the Myanmar people. This includes funding from both domestic and foreign sources. In particular, the military now has access to the government’s accounts that it seized at the beginning of the coup.

Numerous signs, however, indicate that the military is facing shortages. The military needs foreign currency to purchase supplies — such as tanks and fuel — and to purchase equipment for its own domestic businesses and small arms production. At the moment, the military likely has access to billions of dollars in foreign currency, much of it kept in bank accounts in foreign countries such as Singapore. 

Many experts believe that cutting off the military’s access to foreign currency will be an important leverage point in stopping the atrocities.

That’s where Big Oil comes in. Chevron (U.S.), TotalEnergies (France), POSCO (South Korea), and PTTEP (Thailand) play significant roles in Myanmar’s three major offshore gas projects. The multinational companies extract the gas from offshore facilities and then ship most of it through pipelines to China and Thailand. Prior to the coup, the companies regularly paid revenues from these projects to the Myanmar government through the “Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise” (MOGE), which is run by the Ministry of Electricity and Energy. In February, the military took control of MOGE, and experts presume it has access to all of MOGE’s bank accounts.

In June, Publish What You Pay released the results of an investigation into Myanmar’s offshore gas industry. It found that “revenues and associated taxes from MOGE are the largest single source of foreign exchange available to the military.” It’s likely that the military is relying substantially on gas revenues to sustain the coup.

What does it mean to be complicit in human rights atrocities?

Legal experts have debated the question of business complicity in human rights abuses for decades. During the Nuremberg trials after World War II, war crimes tribunals convicted several industrialists for supplying the Nazis with poisonous gas for concentration camps, using forced labor, donating money to the regime, and helping to plunder Europe, although many escaped conviction or received lenient sentences.

Since their adoption in 2011, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights have helped clarify how complicity fits within the modern business context. According to the Guiding Principles: “Questions of complicity may arise when a business enterprise contributes to or is seen as contributing to, adverse human rights impacts caused by other parties.” When a business is found to be complicit, it might face legal consequences such as criminal or civil liability, non-legal consequences such as reputational damage and loss of customers, or both.

Professor John Ruggie, the architect of the UN Guiding Principles, identified several factors that can help to determine if a business is complicit in human rights abuses:

  • Almost any type of business activity can be a form of complicity, but it depends on the facts of each case. This potentially includes, for example, providing the perpetrators of human rights abuses with money, vehicles, weapons, or intelligence. 
  • It matters how substantial the business’s contribution to the abuses is. A business can be found to be complicit if it makes any kind of contribution to human rights abuses. However, the more substantial the business’s contribution, the more likely it is to face consequences.
  • Generally, the business must know that its actions would contribute to abuses. In order to be complicit, businesses must generally have a degree of knowledge that their actions will potentially contribute to human rights abuses. 

The UN Guiding Principles also suggest that a business should conduct human rights due diligence with an eye towards avoiding complicity in abuses. The act of conducting due diligence does not necessarily insulate a company from being complicit, but the failure to conduct appropriately robust human rights due diligence or to respond to a situation that arises can be a sign that the company is being willfully complicit.

Growing evidence of Big Oil’s complicity

As each month of the coup goes by, human rights researchers and journalists uncover more evidence that multinational oil and gas corporations operating in Myanmar, including Chevron, TotalEnergies, Posco, and PTTEP, are complicit in ongoing human rights atrocities. EarthRights’ recent fact sheet describes this in more detail. To summarize what is already known:

1.  The companies know about the ongoing atrocities. TotalEnergies and Chevron have indicated through public statements that they are aware of the ongoing atrocities in Myanmar. All of the companies have been told by civil society organizations and UN officials that the atrocities are likely linked to their revenue payments. 

2.  The gas revenue payments are substantial. The companies are making or ordering regular gas revenue payments to MOGE, despite knowing that these revenues are coming under the control of the military junta. They have the ability to stop payments from reaching MOGE if they choose. The gas revenue payments are the single largest source of foreign revenue available to the military.

3.  The companies are making substantial contributions to the atrocities by legitimizing the military junta. The companies are acting as “kingmakers” and treating the military junta as if it were the legitimate government of Myanmar, rather than a criminal organization that has illegally seized control of parts of the government. The companies have treated the military as their counterpart in contracts that were signed with the Government of Myanmar, engaged with the military’s “State Administration Council,” and ignored the democratically elected representatives in the National Unity Government. The companies’ efforts to legitimize the military junta go well beyond the positions of the United Nations and their own home governments, which have not recognized either party as the legitimate government.

4.  Some companies are conducting misinformation campaigns that contribute substantially to the atrocities. TotalEnergies and Chevron have also engaged in misinformation campaigns that appear designed to delay or stop the U.S. and E.U. governments from taking action to stop the continued flow of gas revenues to the military. This has bought more time for the military to seize revenues and consolidate its hold on power.

How the international community should respond

The international community has widely recognized the importance of cutting off the military’s access to revenue streams. Governments have sanctioned a number of military-affiliated businesses and state-owned enterprises now under the control of the military. So far, the U.S. and French governments have backed away from sanctions targeting gas revenues, in large part due to the companies’ lobbying and misinformation campaigns.

Since the beginning of the coup, Myanmar civil society has demanded that Big Oil act responsibly and stop bankrolling the military. The most obvious solution would be for companies to pay the revenues owed to the Myanmar government into a protected account, which would allow the gas projects to continue operations while ensuring that the revenues do not fall into criminal hands. 

Ultimately, the fossil fuel companies operating in Myanmar need to live up to their stated commitment to human rights and stop funding this murderous regime. 

To learn more, please read our fact sheet.