Last night on Channel 4’s ‘Mark Thomas Comedy Product’, Robin Cook was questioned on whether the Government had really tried to disuade British company Premier Oil from investing in Burma’s military dictatorship. Mr Cook had told BBC Radio Four’s Today Programe that Premier Oil was ‘summoned’ to the Foreign Office and told “don’t do it” regarding their investment in Burma – whereas Premier maintains that it was they who requested the meeting and that they had not been told ‘don’t do it’. Mr Thomas suggested that the Foreign Secretary had wanted the public to think he was taking a firm line against Premier’s support of Burma’s ruling dictatorship, though privately he had done very little to discourage the company.
Mr Cook did not deny that the Foreign Office had failed to say clearly to Premier not to stay in Burma. However, when pressed by Mr Thomas, Mr Cook did eventually say that the Foreign Office position is that it does not want Premier Oil investing in Burma. Mr Cook’s statement on Premier’s investment raises serious questions about the Government’s ethical foreign policy. The Burma Campaign UK (TBC) is launching a Judicial Review led by Geoffrey Robertson QC, to clarify whether the UK Government has the power under European law to impose unilateral economic sanctions against Burma. Instead of supporting the Judicial Review process Mr Cook is trying to prevent it from proceeding, even though the Government has frequently cited legal difficulty as a reason for not imposing sanctions.
John Jackson a Director of the Burma Campaign UK says: “The Foreign Secretary on the one hand says Premier Oil should not invest in Burma. While on the other hand he is fighting against a court case which simply seeks to clarify whether he has the legal power to prevent such investment. His rhetoric is a million miles away from his actions”.
In a video-statement smuggled out of Burma for TBC, Burma’s democracy leader and Nobel Peace laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi has made her most forthright call yet for economic sanctions against her country.
She says: “Burma itself is like a huge prison with the military dicatatorship holding the keys and locking us away from freedom. We would like to call on all of you to help us open the door of our prison… Economic sanctions are good and necessary for the fast democratisation of Burma. We would like the European Community, the United States and the rest of the world to be aware that sanctions do help the movement for democracy in Burma and… unilateral sanctions are better than no sanctions at all.”
Notes to Editors:
1. The EC Treaty provision in question is Article 60.2, which allows member states to impose financial sanctions unilaterally if there are ‘serious political reasons and on grounds of urgency’. The Government does not dispute that serious political reasons exist.
2. The Government has unilaterally imposed measures short of sanctions on Burma, such as withdrawing support for trade missions. It discourages tourism. It therefore clearly believes economic pressure is justified and potentially effective. Its policy is markedly different from the Conservatives, which was one of constructive engagement.
3. Premier Oil has a 27% stake in the Yetagun gas project which will supply Burmese gas to Thailand. There are well-documented human rights abuses associated with construction of this pipeline and a parallel one built by Total and Unocal. While the regime benefits from major investments of this sort, the people of Burma get progressively poorer. Social, economic and environmental indicators now put Burma, a country rich in natural resources, towards the bottom of international league tables.
4. The late Derek Fatchett in a letter to Malcolm Rifkind (Foreign Secretary at the time) in July 1996 said. “The British Government has spoken against sanctions in the past, arguing that such measures ultimately hurt the ordinary Burmese citizen more than the ruling elite. This argument was wrong when it was used to justify continued trade with the Apartheid regime in South Africa, and is still wrong today in regard to Burma. Trade can only assist in the achievement of democratic reforms and respect for human rights if we threaten to withdraw it when there is no sign that these aims are being met. I believe we have now reached this point with Burma”. Mr Fatchett went on to become Labour’s Foreign Minister responsible for Asia and the Middle East.