Late last month, global media began reporting that San Ramon-based Chevron, along with French oil company TotalEnergies, planned to withdraw from Myanmar. Both companies cited the “deteriorating humanitarian crisis” in the country formerly known as Burma as the reason for their decisions.
For a Jan. 21 report, a Chevron spokesperson told CNBC, “In light of circumstances in Myanmar, we have reviewed our interest in the Yadana natural gas project to enable a planned and orderly transition that will lead to an exit from the country.”
While hailing the decisions as victories, activist groups—both local and global—noted that without intense media coverage of the military coup, which ousted the democratically elected government in February 2021, and the subsequent violent repression of protests, it was unlikely either company would have taken such a step.
“We were very surprised,” said Nyunt Than, president of the Burmese American Democratic Alliance. “We have been actively pressuring them for more than 20 years.” One major factor: the interconnectedness of global and social media, enabling stories and facts to be shared immediately, which in turn intensified pressure on Chevron and TotalEnergies.
In April 2021, the New York Times ran a story titled, “Chevron Lobbies to Hold Off New Sanctions on Myanmar.”
In May 2021, the East Bay Express published a cover story, “Oiling a Fascist Coup,” that detailed Chevron’s involvement in Myanmar, and the money from its investment that was being used to prop up the junta. The story noted that the locally based corporation operates in more than 180 countries worldwide, and its activities have previously generated protests in countries as far-flung as Ecuador and Nigeria.
This story was Tweeted by readers, re-posted by human rights and environmental-justice organizations, and generated Facebook pleas for divestment from Chevron. It also called attention to a May 26, 2021 protest outside Chevron’s headquarters during the company’s annual shareholders meeting. “People will gather alongside the Burmese community to demonstrate the universal aspect of Chevron’s actions,” organizer Win-Mon Kyi said at the time.
Thun stated that pressure from the press had definitely had an effect on some shareholders. On May 27, 2021 Reuters reported that, “French oil and gas group Total and U.S. energy company Chevron have suspended some payments from a gas joint venture that would have reached Myanmar’s junta … . In a statement, Total said ‘in light of the unstable context in Myanmar’ after a joint proposal with Chevron shareholders at the meeting of the Moattama Gas Transportation Company voted to suspend all cash distributions.”
“Oil and gas companies are concerned about their images,” Than said. The May East Bay Express article stated, “… the images coming out of Myanmar, showing unarmed protestors being beaten and shot in the streets, is drawing both worldwide and national demand for accountability from Chevron.”
The January 2022 CNBC piece documented the junta’s abuses, saying, “Myanmar’s security forces are estimated to have killed nearly 1,500 people and arrested thousands as they continue to crack down on dissent since the coup in Feb. 2021.”
The article added, “The U.N. has said the situation in Myanmar has been getting worse since the turn of the year, warning that people in the country are facing an ‘unprecedented’ political, socioeconomic and humanitarian crisis.”
But although the Chevron and TotalEnergies’ withdrawals are being praised by watchdog groups, Than noted that Myanmar’s Yadana gas field reserves are likely dwindling, making relying on the country increasingly less profitable.
Than also issued a warning. China, he said, is hungry for oil and gas leases, and the withdrawal of Western companies opens up opportunities for it to move in to fill the void.
This was supported by a report on the website of organization Business & Human Rights Resource Center, which cautioned that the junta would “likely be able to sell the departing operators’ stakes,” injecting even more money into the military’s coffers, and making it partners, as Than said, with a country highly resistant to outside criticism and pressure.
The U.N. Security Council is “paralyzed” from taking action by China and Russia, he said, and activists are calling on the Biden administration to declare the coup a threat to national security.
The Burmese American Democratic Alliance will continue working with global groups, said Than, to keep pressure on the junta and to continue to draw attention to its support by international corporations. He pointed to the Asian Working Group of the International Confederation of Labor’s “Blood Money Campaign,” which, according to the organization’s website, calls on states, companies and banks to sanction the military junta, stop investments profitable to the military and freeze its assets.
Local protests and activities also continue, he said.
On Jan. 30, 2022, the Burma Spring Revolution held a car rally over the Golden Gate Bridge to mark the anniversary of the coup. Watch the video promoting the rally, which also lists local organizations supporting the ongoing protests at: tinyurl.com/ycktspj3.
Through Feb. 13, the Burma Spring Benefit Film Festival is streaming its second annual event. The first festival, streamed online from June 4–20, 2021, raised nearly $50,000 in audience donations. The funds were distributed to grassroots organizations doing humanitarian work in Burma/Myanmar.
“But the military still rules the country,” publicity for the festival emphasizes, “seizing and holding political prisoners, and violently suppressing any resistance.”
The festival’s “Encore Edition” features added films and new speaker panels. Donations will provide humanitarian assistance in Myanmar’s Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni and Shan states—poor ethnic areas most severely impacted by food insecurity and emergency shelter needs. “Support will also go to freelance media and non-violent activists forced into Thailand,” organizers said. Visit www.burmaspringbenefitfilmfestival.org.
“The people of Myanmar, especially the young people, are waging a civil war for their freedom,” Than said.