Total’s Burmese Question

The IHT’s Daniel Altman mentions in his “Managing Globalization” blog French’s giant oil company Total’s reluctance to abandon its Burmese operations.

Despite decades of dictatorship and the ongoing crisis, Total “insists that its presence improves the daily lives of tens of thousands of local people“.

Well, it’s hard to imagine Total as a bunch of virginal angels wondering about their potential wrongdoings. Obviously somebody there decided some time ago it would be a good idea to invest in a dictatorship.

It is even harder to imagine any State giving away its resources for free, so it is obvious that Total is in some sort of revenue-sharing agreement with the Burmese government: hence, Total is financing the continuation of the dictatorship.

Not only that: Burma is the most corrupted country in the world alongside Somalia (according to Transparency International’s 2007 index, reported by the Washington Post on September 27 ). Who would then seriously argue that Total or any other company for that matter has found a way to get oil or gas out of Burma without paying bribes?

That would be nothing short of miraculous. So we can reasonably say that in all probability, there are all the signs that Total is, once again, propping up the Burmese dictatorship (and no, it is not alone).

Therefore the continued presence by Total is directly linked to misery for a little short of 50 million people.

Do the rights of those outweigh Total’s improvements of the “the daily lives of tens of thousands of local people“?

Well, if they don’t, then we could justify any violation of human rights as long as a reasonable amount of people appears to be gaining economically. I wouldn’t be sure that is the way forward.

So what is Total to do? It depends on what the relationship with the Junta is at the moment.

If Total has to be supine because it fears losing the contracts, and it can’t afford to, that would mean the company is running a large risk with his investors’ money, as a critical part of his revenues depends on the vagaries of an unelected number of people rather unpopular the world over, and in their country.

It is high time Total should lower that risk then, for example by moving out of Burma at the first opportunity.

If Total can gain the upper hand instead (as the Burmese Generals need a stable revenue stream, i.e. the bribes), then it should push for the necessary reforms or get out of the country: because if it does not use the power it has, then it is an accomplice in all of the deaths, assaults, tortures and incarceration.

Perhaps Total, despite its size and coffers, cannot really bring change to a country. But it is mandatory for the company to give it at least a try, or else shut up about bringing “improvements” to anybody.