What do Dick Cheney, Slobodan Milosevic and the British company Premier
Oil have in common? Answer: they all firmly believe in doing business with
Burma, home to perhaps the world's most oppressive regime.
For Mr Cheney, who was picked this week as George W Bush's Republican running-mate and is thus quite possibly the next US vice-president, the appalling human rights record of the Rangoon military junta presents no bar to trade. As chief executive of Dallas-based Halliburton Co, the world's largest oilfield services company, he backed a lobbying group, USA Engage, opposed to the
current US investment sanctions on Burma. As a board member of another
pressure group, the pro-business National Foreign Trade Council, Mr Cheney's company also recently helped persuade the supreme court to overturn a Massachusetts state law which imposed penalties on companies trading with Burma. Gulf war veteran Cheney fervently believes in making the world a safer place for America's oil industry.
Mr Milosevic's top priority is a safer world for Slobodan Milosevic. The
solated Yugoslav president and indicted war criminal will talk to almost
anybody these days; hence, in recent months, closer ties with Libya and
Iraq, like Serbia the target of sanctions, and China. Earlier this month,
he entertained Win Aung, Burma's foreign minister, in Belgrade. Mr
Milosevic said they agreed that sanctions imposed on sovereign states were
"a criminal form of behaviour (and) a massive violation of human rights".
Unsurprisingly, Mr Milosevic is not troubled by the well-documented misery
of child slave workers in Burma, nor by the International Labour
Organisation's formal accusation that the junta has com mitted "an
international crime", possibly amounting to "a crime against humanity" in
exploiting forced labour.
Nor, apparently, are Burma's hundreds of political prisoners, its
thousands of arbitrary arrests and torture cases, and the tens of
thousands of ethnic Karen and other tribespeople abused, killed or driven
from their land by the Burmese army over-troubling to Premier Oil. Despite
pleas to quit from the government, concern from shareholders, and the
withdrawal of its erstwhile partner, Texaco, Premier persists with its
multi-million pound Yetagun gas pipeline. The company conceded at its AGM
last May that human rights and environmental abuses had been linked to the
project and that the junta's record was "inexcusable". But it steadfastly
refuses to get out.
Never mind the Foreign Office view that such ventures underpin the
systematic repression in Burma since 1962 and undermine international
efforts to effect peaceful change. Never mind that the Nobel prizewinner
Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, and her
supporters still face brutal, daily intimidation 10 years after elections
in which they won 82% of the vote. Forget about the junta's looting of the
country, its criminal involvement in heroin production and trafficking
(second only to Afghanistan), and the dire humanitarian and refugee
problems resulting from its tyranny. And ignore the fact that bigger,
better companies than Premier, like Pepsi-Co, Eastman Kodak, and Best
Western, have pulled out.
All that, Premier and other companies with big Burmese operations like
Unocal and Total/Fina/Elf seem to say, is not our business. It may sound
sick to you. But it makes Dick and Slobodan proud.
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