By Francis Wade
Figures released last week by the Norwegian government show that investments in oil and gas companies operating in Burma stand at close to $US5 billion, despite heavy opposition from rights groups.
The new sum marks an increase of around $US300 million on last year’s figures. The state-owned investment body, the Norwegian Pension Fund, holds shares in 15 energy companies in Burma, a position that the campaign group Norwegian Burma Committee this week criticised as “double morale”.
The Fund, which was founded on the country’s North Sea oil wealth, was the focus of a damming report in December last year by EarthRights International (ERI), who accused it of “contributing to grave unethical actions in Burma” through its investments.
The revelation coincides with reports of several extra-judicial executions last month close to pipelines operated by two overseas companies, the US-based Chevron and French oil giant, Total. Both are targets of investment by the Fund, which has shares of more than $US2 billion in Total and $US0.9 billon in Chevron.
It has also doubled its stake in the controversial Swiss-American drilling firm Transocean, which is being investigated by the US for its work with a consortium of Burmese companies that includes a firm owned by junta crony Steven Law, who is a target of US sanctions.
ERI, which has been monitoring the impact of the Yadana and Yetagun gas pipelines in Burma’s southern Tenasserim division, released a statement yesterday in which it claimed an ethnic Karen man had been killed by Burmese troops close to the pipelines. Both Total and Chevron, who operate the Yadana pipeline in partnership with Thailand’s state-owned PTTE and the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), are known to use Burmese army units as security for their operations.
Eight of the 15 companies, including Transocean, have seen increased investment from the Fund, while six have seen a reduction and one remains the same.
Its shares in Korea’s Hyundai Heavy Industries have soared from $US11.5 million to $US173 million, while its holdings in PetroChina now top $US100 million, information obtained by ERI shows.
What these companies have in common is their involvement in the controversial Shwe dual pipeline project, which will transport Burmese gas and Middle Eastern and African oil across the breadth of the country to southern China. The campaigning group Shwe Gas Movement (SGM) claims the project has dramatically increased military presence along the pipeline route and caused the forcible relocation of hundreds of civilians.
Matthew Smith, senior consultant at ERI, said the increase in investments by the Pension Fund “is indiscriminate of the ethical considerations – that [the Fund doesn’t] determine whether or not to increase their holdings based on ethnical decisions”.
Significant chunks of the Shwe pipeline and the Yadana-Yetagun pipelines, which transport gas to Thailand, run through military zones, where incidents such as the killing of the Karen man in February are common. Smith said however that such risks are an issue “these companies have consistently tried to deny in communications with their investors and other interested parties”.
The Pension Fund in March 2007 disinvested from the Chinese company Dongfeng following evidence that it had been supplying trucks to the Burmese military.
Norway was one of the first countries to accept Burmese refugees following the 1988 uprising, and in 1991 awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.