Last February 1st, the Myanmar military launched one of the most violent coups in recent history. Its actions upended life in the country, destabilized the region, and pushed millions into a humanitarian crisis. More than 1,400 people have died, and nearly 12,000 have been arrested. A year later, the crisis continues to escalate. The people of Myanmar are deeply familiar with such violence–and the ways in which fossil fuel corporations and the military exacerbate it. I am too.
I was born in Burma (Myanmar) and lived there until 1988, when I was detained as a student, tortured, and exiled for speaking out against the military-led government. I said goodbye to my friends and family and fled to the Thai border. There, I met villagers from ethnic minority communities who revealed that two multinational oil companies, Unocal (now Chevron) and Total, joined with the Burmese army to militarize the Yadana pipeline project, resulting in forced labor, land grabs, torture, rape, extrajudicial killings, and attacks on Indigenous and ethnic minority communities.
I worked with activists in these communities to document their stories and ultimately teamed up with two young American lawyers to ensure that the companies didn’t get away with these human rights abuses. In 1996, we filed a lawsuit against Unocal for egregious human rights violations–one of the very first legal cases launched against a gas infrastructure project. In 2003, Unocal was forced to settle, marking the first time a human rights lawsuit against a multinational corporation resulted in compensation for the survivors.
Our team documented that the Yadana pipeline was the biggest source of revenue for the military in the 2000s, providing almost 5 billion dollars from 2000 to 2008, and essentially serving as the regime’s financial lifeline that allowed it to resist international pressure to end its human rights abuses. Over 20 years later, Myanmar’s military once again unleashes terror upon the country, and fossil fuel companies again have blood on their hands. Until these companies divest responsibly from Myanmar, we should continue to hold them accountable for the violence imposed on the people of the country.
Every month, gas companies such as TotalEnergies, Chevron, and Posco International facilitate the transfer of millions of U.S. dollars in payments for gas revenues to Myanmar’s military. These payments are the military’s largest source of foreign funds. Contractually, the companies are required to make these payments to the Government of Myanmar, but Myanmar no longer has a recognized government. Instead, the revenues are received by an illegal, criminal junta that has taken control of government bank accounts and is actively misappropriating state assets. This money is essentially funding a civil war. Meanwhile, the people of Myanmar reap very few benefits from the country’s gas projects. For instance, in 2001, the military spent only 50 cents per person on healthcare, even as it spent millions from gas revenues on Russian warplanes.
In January, Total and Chevron announced plans to withdraw from Myanmar. This is a symbolic victory for the people but does not solve the underlying problem. Since the start of the coup, Myanmar’s democracy leaders have called on foreign governments and international investors to support their efforts to reverse the coup by stopping gas revenues from reaching the military junta. These revenues provide around half of the foreign funds available to the military. The revenues–around 150 million USD a month–flow through the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), a so-called “state-owned enterprise” that is now under the control of the military. The military uses gas revenues to purchase weapons, jet fuel, surveillance technology, and generally to cement its grip on power.
For nearly a year, Total and Chevron resisted calls to stop channeling revenues to the junta. Total continues to assert that it has no control over gas revenues, yet each month it orders a gas buyer, the Thai state-owned company PTT, to transfer millions of dollars to accounts controlled by the junta. Meanwhile, Chevron has lobbied the U.S. government to block stronger diplomatic action. Under the companies’ current proposed withdrawal plan, the military junta would not only continue to receive a steady stream of gas revenues but might even end up getting more than before. The companies must divest responsibly–working in consultation with Myanmar’s democracy leaders and civil society to ensure that the junta no longer misappropriates gas revenues.
Last year at his Summit for Democracy, President Biden noted that “democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it.” This wisdom applies to Myanmar, yet the Biden administration has hesitated to take bold steps to oppose the coup. It has stopped short of recognizing the pro-democracy National Unity Government and cutting off the military’s access to gas revenues. Last year, members of Congress introduced the BURMA Act, which calls on the Biden administration to impose sanctions on the Myanmar military and its cronies. With this bill, Congress delivered a message that the Biden administration must take stronger action against the brutal military regime in Myanmar. We urge Congress to pass it.
The cycles of violence that Myanmar’s military inflicts on its people are intertwined with the costs that the fossil fuel industry imposes on us all. Rampant oil and gas extraction is driving climate change to such an extent that every person on the planet is now affected by the problem. The fossil fuel industry must be held accountable for the damages it has imposed on the planet. In Myanmar, that means ensuring that Total and Chevron divest responsibly and that the fossil industry no longer funds human rights atrocities and the repression of the will of the people.