By Nontarat Phaicharoen and Kunnawut Boonreak
Human Rights Watch on Tuesday joined a chorus of NGOs calling for Thailand’s state-owned oil and gas firm to not expand business ties with Myanmar’s junta while the Burmese military carries on with a bloody post-coup crackdown on protesters.
The Petroleum Authority of Thailand (PTT) has been involved in oil and gas exploration in the neighboring country for more than three decades and has paid billions of dollars in fees, taxes, royalties and revenues, New York-based HRW said in a statement.
“But with production declining in recent years, the company has ramped up its midstream and downstream investments in the country, with the stated goal of becoming the ‘top Myanmar provider’ of petroleum products,” it said.
“By expanding business ties with the Myanmar military as it carries out a bloody crackdown, the Thai state-owned PTT has shown little regard for the lives and freedom of Myanmar’s people,” said Shayna Bauchner, an Asia researcher for the watchdog group. “PTT’s leadership should respect international sanctions and cut ties with the junta to avoid being complicit in its crimes.”
More than 820 people have been killed and more than 4,300 arrested, charged or sentenced in Myanmar since the military overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government on Feb. 1, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Thai NGO.
Joining HRW are 76 NGOs calling themselves The Extraterritorial Obligation Watch Coalition (ETOs Watch). On May 20, the NGOs signed an open letter calling for PTT and its subsidiary, the Petroleum Authority of Thailand Exploration and Production Co. Ltd. (PTTEP), to refrain from paying the Myanmar government for natural gas.
“[T]here is no guarantee that revenues from PTT, as a contract purchaser, will be used for real civilian affairs to benefit the people of Myanmar,” the letter said.
It noted that in 2017 and 2018 PTT paid more than U.S. $615 million (19.2 billion baht) to Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, adding that gas revenues are expected to contribute up to 50 percent of Myanmar’s foreign revenues, with at least half of that coming from PTT. Those revenues are critical to the survival of the coup promoters.
HRW said PTT, under a 2019 joint venture, was paying the military conglomerate Myanmar Economic Corp. (MEC) nearly $1 million (31.3 million baht) in annual rent for the construction of a fuel terminal on land seized from farmers.
“The United States, United Kingdom, European Union, and Canada have sanctioned MEC and the other military conglomerate, Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL), for their role in generating vast revenues that help fund the military’s abuses and enshrine its impunity,” HRW said.
When contacted by BenarNews, Thai government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri and Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Thanee Saengrat deferred to PTT for comment on the NGOs’ statements. PTT, meanwhile, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
Thailand has its own long history of coups. Last Saturday marked the seventh anniversary of a military coup that overthrow the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The army chief who led that coup, Prayuth Chan-o-cha, remains in power as prime minister.
ETOs Watch coordinator Teerachai Sanjaroenkijthaworn said his group’s main request to PTT was not that the firm stop sending money – but that it ensured that payments did not go directly to the Burmese junta.
“The Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) made a similar request previously to ensure that these revenues are not used for weapons for the Myanmar army,” Teerachai told BenarNews on Tuesday, referring to a Burmese government in exile representing National League for Democracy lawmakers.
He said CRPH had sent its own letter to foreign investors in Myanmar asking them to deposit proceeds that would normally go to the junta into a protected account.
The Thai company should pay attention to the NGOs, said Salai Bawi, a political scientist at Chiang Mai University.
“If PTT accepts and stops paying real money, that will have a huge impact on the Myanmar army because the military will lose a tremendous amount of income,” he told BenarNews. “That means a decrease in weapons to suppress the people.”
Chalefun Ditphudee, a Thai human rights activist with the Foundation for Environment and Natural Resources (FENR), said any deals between PTT and Myanmar’s military regime should be scrutinized.
“Every movement must be transparent, verifiable to meet international standards, therefore, any political support for any group deserves to be questioned,” she told BenarNews.