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Oil Firms May Fuel Burma's Nuke Plans

By Dennis Bernstein
July 7, 2010

U.S. oil giant Chevron, along with the French energy giant, Total, and PTTEP in Thailand “are financing the world’s newest nuclear threat with multi-billion dollar payments, and have refused to practice financial transparency, despite calls by the Burmese and international community,” according to a newly released report from EarthRights International.

The 48-page report, entitled “How Total, Chevron, and PTTEP Contribute to Human Rights Violations, Financial Secrecy, and Nuclear Proliferation in Burma (Myanmar),” alleges that Burma’s brutal rulers are using gas revenues from a highly lucrative pipeline partnership with the trio of oil giants to fund an illegal program to build the weapons.

The report, which was released Monday, cites evidence from leaked United Nations documents, an in-depth analysis from a former leader of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and testimony and secret documents from a Burmese military whistleblower.

According to the report, Burma’s rulers are now spending tens of millions of dollars on the creation of the new secret nuclear weapons program, although Burma is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in which it disavows any intention of building a nuclear bomb.

Burma, which is called Myanmar by its current leaders, has one of the most repressive and isolated governments in the world.

Nobel laureate and pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been in jail or under house arrest for over 20 years. And when the country was battered by a series of terrible storms, the rulers barred international aid from going to tens of thousands of victims who could be seen on television screens around the world, grasping for life.

But, according to the new report by EarthRights International, the trio of major oil companies has not let the junta’s human rights record or its alleged desire to acquire nuclear weapons get in the way of the corporate bottom line and the endless search for oil.

According the ERI report, the collaboration between the junta and the oil companies “generated over $9 billion (US) dollars in military-ruled Myanmar, since 1998, making their Yadana Natural Gas Project the single largest source of revenue for the country’s notoriously repressive dictatorship. …The funds have enabled the country’s autocratic junta to maintain power and pursue an expensive, illegal nuclear weapons program while participating in illicit weapons trade in collaboration with North Korea.”

The in-depth report, documents how the oil companies are stonewalling against requests to disclose nearly 20 years of payments to the Burmese state as the ruling generals prepare for elections that have already been widely criticized as unfair because of the prevailing repression and human rights abuses.

According to the ERI report, “the revenue, much of which may be kept outside the country, enables the regime to engage in international hard-currency transactions to buy arms and other acquisitions. Little if any of the money is used for the benefit of the people of Burma.”

Burmese Nukes

Besides the NPT, Burma has signed the Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone, which prohibits the development or placement of nuclear weapons in its territory.

Despite these international obligations and limitations, “evidence surfaced from several sources, indicating the military regime had ambitions to develop a nuclear weapon of mass destruction,” the report said, citing a detailed five-year study, recently released by the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), analyzed and written by former IAEA president Robert E. Kelley.

The DVB’s report, “Nuclear Related Activities in Burma,” provided the backdrop for a recent documentary on Al Jazeera, and is based on many top secret documents and photographs, provided by a former Army Major, Sai Thein Win.

Kelly concluded, after evaluating the secret documents and photos, “the information...suggests that Burma is mining uranium, converting it to uranium compounds for reactors and bombs, and is trying to build a reactor and or an enrichment plant that could only be useful for a bomb. There is no chance that these activities are directed at a reactor to produce electricity.”

The DVB report followed on the heels of  a report leaked by the United Nations “that North Korea is exporting nuclear and ballistic missile technology to Burma using multiple intermediaries, shell companies, and overseas criminal networks to circumvent UN sanctions against Pyongyang,” according to the ERI report.

“Adding to these concerns are mountains of evidence that detail the military regime’s construction of an intricate nationwide system of bunkers, caverns, and tunnels throughout the entire country, at exorbitant costs and in partnership with North Korea,” the report said.

In 2009, PLTV in France filmed an interview with Total Vice President of Public Affairs, Jean-Francois Lassalle, in which the French oil exec was asked about Total’s presence in Burma, and the possibility of funds generated by the junta being used to fund an illicit nuclear weapons program.

“The executive dismissed the possibility on the grounds that Burma’s nuclear ambitions were merely ‘rumors,’” the ERI report said, adding: “These ‘rumors’ are now far more substantiated.”

The report also alleged that “Total, Chevron, and PTTEP have been complicit in forced labor, killings, and other abuses committed by the Burmese Army providing security in the area of their natural gas pipeline in Burma. … .The Yadana Project companies have thus financially upheld a violent and authoritarian regime accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes, and a regime exposed as the world’s newest nuclear threat.”

The ERI report also blamed the oil companies, in part, for the “targeted killings of two ethnic Mon villagers and in ongoing forced labor connected to their 60 kilometer (onshore) Yadana (meaning treasure) gas pipeline, which transports Burmese gas to Thailand.”

The abuses were allegedly committed by Burmese soldiers providing security for the oil companies and the pipeline within the last year.
“These recent killings and forced labor are brutal examples of what local families have suffered since the oil companies first started their project in Burma,” stated EarthRights International’s Naing Htoo, a principal author of the report.

“According to the facts we’ve collected, these abuses were committed by Burmese Army battalions in the name of pipeline maintenance and security. Villagers deserve justice they can’t access in Burma, and the oil companies are denying responsibility.”

The slain villagers, who were allegedly killed by soldiers, had just returned from a stint of forced labor. They were apparently murdered because they were suspected of being members of local resistance groups. According to the ERI report, the oil companies have feigned concern about the alleged killings, but failed to act responsibly, with Total claiming it did not have knowledge of these cases.

According to the ERI report, the wide-spread practice of forced labor on behalf of the pipeline has compelled people to abandon their traditional ways of life and customs.

Dennis Bernstein based this report in part on interviews done for "Flashpoints" on the Pacifica radio network. You can access the audio archives at You can get in touch with the author at

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