BANGKOK - Energy giants Total and Chevron are propping up Myanmar's junta with a gas project that has allowed the regime to stash nearly five billion dollars in Singaporean banks, a rights group said Thursday.
France's Total and US-based Chevron have also tried to whitewash alleged rights abuses by Myanmar troops guarding the pipeline, including forced labour and killings, two reports by US-based EarthRights International said.
The group urged the international community to exert pressure on the two companies, which have long managed to avoid Western sanctions against the generals who rule the impoverished Southeast Asian nation.
"Total and Chevron's Yadana gas project has generated 4.83 billion dollars for the Burmese regime," one of the reports said, adding that the figures for the period 2000-2008 were the first ever detailed account of the revenues.
"The military elite are hiding billions of dollars of the peoples' revenue in Singapore while the country needlessly suffers under the lowest social spending in Asia," said Matthew Smith, a principal author of the reports.
The junta had kept the revenues off the national budget and stashed almost all of the money offshore with Singapore's Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) and DBS Group (DBS), the watchdog said.
"The revenue from this pipeline is the regime's lifeline and a critical leverage point that the international community could use to support the people of Burma," added Smith, the group's coordinator for the country.
Total said it was still studying the report, while Chevron said development projects for the project had helped local communities.
"We believe that Totals health, economic development and education programs, which we support, are critical and substantively make positive improvements to the lives of the people in the Yadana project communities," a Chevron statement said.
Total and Chevron are two of the biggest Western companies in Myanmar and have recently come under fire for their dealings with the regime, following the extension in August of the house arrest of pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
Total has been able to continue working there because EU sanctions against the country currently only cover arms exports, wood, minerals, gems and metals.
US lawmakers in July 2008 dropped plans for sanctions that would have ended tax write-offs enjoyed by Chevron and would have pressured it to pull out from the Yadana project.
Total has been a major investor in the Yadana project since 1992, holding a 31.24 percent stake. Chevron has a 28 percent stake in the field, production from which represents 60 percent of Myanmar's gas exports to Thailand.
EarthRights said that as a result of the hidden revenues, Total and Chevron were a "primary reason" why international and domestic pressure on the Myanmar military regime had been ineffective for decades.
The group meanwhile said that impact assessments of the pipeline by US-based CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, a US non-profit organisation commissioned by Total, had covered up adverse effects and abuses, the group said.
Report co-author Naing Htoo said CDA "wilfully participated in whitewashing Total and Chevron's impacts in Burma and their role in forced labour, killings, and other abuses."
CDA visited villages in the pipeline area on five occasions but only with escorts from the oil company and interpreters from Total, while villagers were warned by security members not to give bad news, the report said.
The Chevron statement said however that the firm believed the CDA's findings "provide a credible assessment of the Yadana Projects community engagement activities."
Myanmar has been ruled by the military since 1962. Its huge natural resources are also a major target for Asian countries, especially China, which eschew western sanctions.