Cheney, Milosevic and Premier Oil Do Business with Junta

The Guardian (London) July 28, 2000

Eyes Wide Shut

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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