Teerachai Sanjaroenkijthaworn

In the middle of March, there was a big news in the energy sector closely linked to the situation in Myanmar as PTT Exploration and Production Public Company Limited or PPTEP announced its additional shares purchasing and became the operator of the Yadana natural gas field and pipeline project in Myanmar after France’s global big energy firm, TotalEnergies, withdrew its investment from this project in the wake of serious human rights violations by the Myanmar Army against its people since the coup d’état. TotalEnergies and Chevron made their announcement at the end of January.       

Various news sources stated that PTTEP will take over operations of the Yadana gas field in the Gulf of Moattama which is one of the three major gas fields in Myanmar that PTTEP has invested in (the other two are Yetagun and Zawtika fields) on the upcoming July 20 instead of TotalEnergies, mainly taking the continuity of energy consumption into account.     

Natural gas generated by the Yadana project will be sold to PTT as an energy supplier. Approximately 550 million standard cubic feet per day (MMSCFD) of such gas will be transported through the pipeline from Myanmar to Thailand and fed to 12 both large and small power plants, then converted into electricity for using in Thailand. Another 220 MMSCFD will be used in Myanmar, particularly in Yangon.   

In addition, 59% of Thailand’s main raw material in generating electricity was natural gas (as of 2021), natural gas from Myanmar took 14% of this proportion divided into 9% from Yadana; 0.2% from Yetagun and 5% from Zawtika projects in which Thai energy companies have invested. The rest were from the Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) imports and the production from domestic drilling sites. In relation to the Yadana project, PTTEP; TotalEnergies as well as Chevron have been operating it more than 30 years, since early 1990s, the concession of this project will expire in 6 years ahead.         

The perplexity that might have been underestimated in the news was the fact that Chevron’s subsidiary, Unocal, remains a major shareholder regardless of the previous decisive announcement to withdraw its investment for the same reason as TotalEnergies. Even though the US has also imposed sanctions on various Myanmar junta-related activities…there is still no definitive answer for such confusion there is still no definitive answer for such confusion or how much does the company actually concern about critical situation happening to the people of Myanmar?

This divestment of TotalEnergies’ subsidiary resulted in the shareholding change in Moattama Gas Transportation Company (MGTC) joint venture operating the Yadana project. Unocal will hold 41.1% of the shares and become the project’s biggest shareholder followed by PTTEP with 37.1%, then a state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) which is under the Ministry of Electricity and Energy with 21.8%.

It seemed to be very ironic that PTTEP claimed in one part of the press release on its website after France’s main project operator announcement of shares selling and withdrawal that “the company recognizes that equitable access to energy is a fundamental human right”. Such an explanation appeared to be extremely opposite to what really happened in Myanmar since Myanmar’s civil society has called for the joint venture companies including TotalEnergies, Chevron, and PTT to suspend payments of gas purchasing from Myanmar. As money from these projects has become a huge fund for Myanmar’s military junta: it could be used to buy weapons, converted into bullets and grenades to suppress people as well as created human rights and humanitarian crisis for over a year now.           

Since the coup d’état conducted by the military dictatorship led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing seizing the power of the civilian government on February 1, 2021, people in all areas of Myanmar have campaigned for foreign firms investing in Myanmar to withdraw their investments, to not engage or do business with corporate groups involved with the military or the family of Myanmar military officers in order to prevent the army’s wealth creation. Several foreign companies have withdrawn or temporarily suspended their projects.     

Although the Yadana project is not part of the military network’s corporate groups, but since the coup, MOGE has already been under the control of the junta. For this reason, people in many areas have campaigned for the companies investing in the project to postpone the payments for the gas to MOGE because these money will be funded the Myanmar Army’s purchase of weapons to crack down on people who are against the coup. 

Not only Myanmar people, but last year, Thai and international CSOs periodically tried to call on PTTEP to suspend the payment for the Yadana project’s gas to the state-owned MOGE, yet there was no progress from the Thai energy giant. It aimed merely to accelerate the raw material procurement for feeding the only one buyer, Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), in the power system despite the fact that Thailand’s backup power has jumped to more than 40-50% which is highly over needed for consumption as the backup should not be over 15%. It is certain that the excess power reserve was caused by the problem in Thai energy policy planning as policy makers predicted that Thai economy would exceedingly grow, the economic uncertainty and the epidemic have however pointed out that they were terribly wrong. But still, new power plants as well as the creation of new capacity generation are happening in large numbers, having more power reserve than the demand becomes a burden for Thai electricity users to pay the “Availability Payment” (AP) of such excess that is added into the system according to the existing power policy plan.

During the period when global situation made oil and natural gas expensive resulting in the skyrocketed cost of goods, relevant agencies in power management should use the available backup to compensate the power use at this time so that people would not have to bear the burden of the AP (Take or Pay) payment through their electricity bills in the form of the Float Time (FT) which is currently raised to 4 baht per unit… It is clear that using electricity from Myanmar’s gas will not only build wealth for the Tatmadaw to make trouble to the people of Myanmar, Thai people also have to pay their electricity bills (which is mostly produced from gas) at higher price… Let us try to take a look at who else could benefit from this besides the Tatmadaw.         

This is something people must be aware of the reason why we have to bear the burden of higher price of electricity converted from gas that we are using and we have the rights to know that our electricity payment will be converted into armaments for suppressing Myanmar people, including ethnic forces who stand alongside with people calling for democracy.    

The natural gas project has greatly affected the prosperity of Myanmar Army which can be considered as one of its most important arteries or sponsors. A report by Justice for Myanmar, a civil society organization (CSO) in Myanmar, revealed that over one billion US dollars annually convey to the government’s account, this revenue contributes up to 50% of Myanmar’s foreign-exchange reserves taken by the Tatmadaw. If this revenue can be cut or suspended, at least, the Myanmar Army’s money for purchasing weapons will be diminished. It will also prevent Thai companies’ reputation from being associated with the military dictatorship, protect Thailand’s interests in the long run as well as maintain good relationship with Myanmar people in the future.                 

Many people might wonder why Myanmar, Thai as well as international CSOs did not ask the firms involved in the project to withdraw their investments in the first place, but to stop or suspend the payment instead. It is because in case of withdrawal, there will be new shareholder companies to run the project in the future and money continues to flow through MOGE into the pocket of the Tatmadaw. As a result, suspending the account of MOGE with all revenues locked into escrow accounts while the Tatmadaw is in power will probably be the most effective way to prevent them from using such money until the democratic elected government will return to run the country.      

Considering Thailand’s human rights monitoring mechanisms, apart from the National Human Rights Commission whose role is to investigate human rights violation cases, Thailand also has agencies like the Rights and Liberties Protection Department under the Ministry of Justice which is the main unit for developing the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights (NAP) as a result of Thailand’s adoption of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights held every 5 years at the UN Human Rights Situation Review Forum. This action plan was promulgated at the end of 2019 (and is about to expire in 2022), with no legal obligation or enforcement towards both private and state sectors, but when such mechanism exists, it should be used to supervise the investments of all sectors. As the main goal of this plan is to be a tool for regulating and encouraging Thai business sector to invest with human rights respect not only within the country, but also overseas. One of the four issues on which this plan focuses is ‘overseas investments and multinational corporations’ expanding their investments and building large-scale projects abroad need to particularly be taken into account. In addition to the said mechanism, there are Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that companies give special importance through the sustainability reports they annually conduct (by themselves). It is certain that the issues of human rights and social sustainability are also included in each goal of the SDG in order to show how much their businesses value environment and human rights.      

The fact that Thai giant energy company saying that access to energy is also human rights seems to therefore be very deceptive considering the brutal actions of the Myanmar Army against the people. The claiming of human rights here may simply be a discourse borrowed from global trends that businesses need to prioritize human rights and environment at the same time. They are still blind or give no importance to another side of the petroleum-energy host country where human rights have been destroying for more than a year. 

We can confidently say that what the Myanmar junta has been doing is more than just the general violation of human rights. It is a crime against humanity as it aimed to destroy not only the military bases of the ethnic armed forces and the People’s Defense Force (PDF), but also the houses; buildings as well as sources of livelihood of innocent people.

Not that there has been no human rights problem at all during nearly three decades of the Yadana project initiation because, throughout the construction of the gas pipeline project for transporting gas extracted from the Yadana field, different effects have been occurred in the areas where the pipes pass.

As for human rights violation issue caused by the Myanmar military dictatorship at the time, there were forced evictions and people’s land grabbing in different communities; forced labors, including environmental impacts since the pipeline construction project took place during the military government after people suppression in 1988. Myanmar had to depend more on foreign investments in the form of concessions granting for the large-scale development projects, but under the military dictatorship, Myanmar local people were then unable to exercise their rights to oppose and express their disagreement towards the project implementation. 

However, at the beginning of the last year coup, residents in the project-affected areas came out to protest the Tatmadaw’s seize of powers urging foreign firms involved with the project to suspend their payments through MOGE as well as calling on many of the project’s employees to join the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM).

Report from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) stated that until now (April 6, 2022), over a year after the coup, more than 1,730 Myanmar civilians have died in the junta’s crackdown and more than 13,112 persons have been arrested. Moreover, clashes between the Myanmar Army and the PDF as well as the ethnic forces have made over 500,000 internally displaced people.

Here is only one part of the reality that the CSOs could have documented, the cruelty of the Myanmar military dictatorship against the people continues and intensifies every day.  

To take part in stopping people bloodshed by the Myanmar Army, joint venture partner of the Yadana project as well as gas buyers like PTTEP and PTT should find a way to suspend their payments during this period as requested by the people of Myanmar. This is the most effective approach to confidently say that supplying energy by taking control of the production from such gas field is, on the other side, an emphasis on human rights and humanitarian as well.   


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