In late February, Lwin Oo* boarded a helicopter at Yangon International Airport with 12 of his co-workers bound for the Yadana gas field, located 60 kilometres off Myanmar’s southwestern coast. After an hour in the air, the offshore facility came into view, a bright yellow speck against the dark blue Andaman Sea. 

The Yadana complex is made up of seven fixed platforms—steel structures that house personnel and drilling rigs—all connected by steel bridges. The helicopter descended slowly atop one of the platforms. The workers, dressed in bright orange overalls, disembarked onto the green helipad and headed to their living quarters before beginning their shifts at dawn the next day. 

Normally, the only thing these workers would have to worry about as they begin their month-long stint at the facility is the tedium of their work—maintaining the mechanical equipment pumping gas from the seabed to clients of Total E&P Myanmar, a subsidiary of the French energy giant Total.

This time, however, was the first time Lwin Oo and his colleagues had gone to work since the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, staged a coup on 1 February, toppling the elected civilian government and killing an estimated 700 civilians in an ongoing crackdown on pro-democracy activists. Now, the workers’ greatest concern is continuing to work for a company thought to be the Tatmadaw’s single largest source of revenue.

“Most employees don’t feel good about the money still flowing to the junta,” Lwin Oo says.

Natural gas is Myanmar’s second-largest export after manufactured goods, and Yadana is its most lucrative gas project. In 2019, Total reported paying some 230 million euros (about US$275 million) to Myanmar. Sales of natural gas produced at Yadana and three other offshore sites earn Myanmar close to US$1 billion every year, most of it going to the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), a shadowy state-owned business that partnered with Total to extract gas from the Yadana field in 1992. 

Sometimes, Navy ships wander around our platform. …If the export operation totally stops, they will detain CDM staff.

In 2018, MOGE’s accounts contained the equivalent of US$4.6 billion, according to a report by the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. During the coup, MOGE and its funds came under the Tatmadaw’s direct control.

“The continuous income to MOGE is the worst,” says Hein Ko*, another current Total employee.

According to an open letter sent in late February by 400 Myanmar civil society organisations to oil and gas companies operating in the country, revenue payments to MOGE “would help sustain the military’s illegitimate governance, [and] provide them with the resources necessary to carry out military operations that violate human rights”.

Revenue payments would also undermine the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), the letter says, referring to a nationwide labour strike led by civil servants aimed at obstructing the junta’s ability to govern and collect revenue.

In mid-March, dozens of workers at the Yadana facility submitted a petition to their managers calling on Total E&P Myanmar to suspend export payments to the junta, to place the funds in a protected account and to freeze income tax payments until a democratically elected government is restored in Myanmar. 

“We have to use every effort to bring an end to this military coup, which is also condemned internationally,” the letter says. “We are specifically concerned that the profits gained from the Yadana project, which we are working for, will one way or another help fund the military junta’s violent repression of Myanmar’s people and entrench their regime.”

Workers who spoke to New Naratif requested that the letter not be published in full.

Total managers rejected the petition and have instructed workers to keep working and refrain from criticising the company’s policies. Hein Ko and Lwin Oo are among dozens of workers who say they want to join the Civil Disobedience Movement, but they are too afraid of reprisals to say so publicly.

“The French field manager threatened the offshore staff when [we] told him to stop exports. He said the military will arrest whoever joins the CDM,” Hein Ko says.

“Sometimes, Navy ships wander around our platform,” he adds. “If the export operation totally stops, they will detain CDM staff.”

Neither Total E&P Myanmar nor Total headquarters responded to multiple requests for comment from New Naratif.

History of Abuse

Total has a long history of collaboration with the Tatmadaw and complicity in its human rights abuses. In 2005, the company paid a 5.2 million-euro (US$6.2 million) settlement to eight Myanmar workers who sued the company in a French court over alleged forced labour during the construction of the Yadana pipeline from 1995 to 1998. The plaintiffs claimed the Tatmadaw had forced them to work on the 409-kilometre pipeline, which funnels natural gas from the offshore facility to the Thai border, where it is sold to the Thai state-owned energy company PTT.

A Tatmadaw soldier confessed to these abuses to human rights group EarthRights International, saying: “We ask [the villagers] to carry shell ammunition, food and supplies. During the portering, the soldiers treat porters not so good. I do not want to mention about these bad things so much since I myself I have done it to these people as well at that time.”

The rights group revealed in a 2009 report that Myanmar soldiers acting as security for the Yadana pipeline project and its operators, Total and US energy giant Chevron, had committed a range of rights abuses against local people for years. They included forcing civilians to work as porters, carry wood and repair roads in the pipeline area, as well as torture and extrajudicial killings.

Despite its human rights record, Myanmar workers continued to seek jobs at Total in the 2000s because there were so few well-paying jobs in the country at the time, before the previous military junta handed most state institutions over to the nominally civilian government of President Thein Sein in 2011. 

In 2000, Myanmar was one of the poorest countries in the world due to a legacy of mismanagement, runaway inflation, corruption and a lack of foreign investment. A series of banking crises in the early 2000s further crippled Myanmar’s weak currency and caused the prices of basic commodities to spike. 

Gas is transported from the Yadana gas field through two pipelines, one connecting to Yangon, and the other to the Thai border.

In late 2006, sharp rises in the prices of fuel, rice, eggs and cooking oil set off the pro-democracy Saffron Revolution in Yangon, during which security forces killed at least 31 people and arrested thousands of protesters, including dozens of Buddhist monks. 

Like today, many workers regretted that their labour enriched the Tatmadaw and funded its murderous operations.

“In those days, it was difficult to get jobs, and people had to find whatever was available to them. Of course, we all knew that income went to the military government before 2010. Most people don’t like to work for companies that give to the military, but we didn’t have much choice,” says Alex*, who worked for Total E&P Myanmar for a few years in the 2000s.

After agreeing to the settlement with the eight workers who accused the company of abuses in 2005, Total denied any involvement in forced labour. It also said ceasing operations in Myanmar would worsen the situation in the country.

The firm continues to parrot similar lines today. On 4 April, Total CEO Patrick Pouyanné published an open letter acknowledging public calls to “stop ‘financing’ the military junta”. In his letter, Pouyanné announced that Total would cancel an upcoming gas discovery project on the Yadana gas field and cease drilling operations in Myanmar. 

Total’s statement suggesting that its staff could face repercussions if it withholds payments effectively confirms that the payments amount to extortion.

However, Pouyanné also acknowledged that the only way to cease all payments to the junta would be to stop producing gas, which he said the company would not do for three reasons: first, the gas Total produces provides electricity to millions of people in Yangon and Thailand; second, ceasing operations could result in the military forcing Total workers to produce anyway; and, finally, Total can continue to produce gas safely because its “facilities are not affected by the dramatic events unfolding onshore”.

The rationalisations ring hollow to Hein Ko. “If he wants to protect the staff, I’d like to tell him to protect us by respecting democratic standards,” he says.

Ben Hardman, Myanmar policy and legal advisor for EarthRights International, says Total is well-aware that its contracts with the Myanmar government have escape clauses for political disturbances that would allow the company to suspend payments.

“Total does not deny that it has the power to halt gas payments into accounts controlled by the military and that it facilitates those payments. Facilitating payments into those accounts, when they are now controlled by what is basically an armed criminal gang, likely breaks both Myanmar laws on corruption and US law on money laundering,” Hardman tells New Naratif.

He adds: “Total’s statement suggesting that its staff could face repercussions if it withholds payments effectively confirms that the payments amount to extortion.”

Blood Money

In late March, the United States Department of the Treasury announced sanctions against Myanma Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC)—two military-owned holding companies that dominate numerous sectors of Myanmar’s economy, including trade, natural resources, alcohol, cigarettes and consumer goods.

Rights experts and watchdogs say these sanctions leave a vital lifeline for the Tatmadaw intact.

“Oil and gas will bankroll the junta unless Total, Chevron and PTTEP take actions demanded by the people of Myanmar and suspend payments to the military,” says Yadanar Maung, a spokesperson for Justice for Myanmar.

“It is urgent that the international community sanction MOGE, which is now the military’s most lucrative business and is stealing assets that belong to the people of Myanmar,” she says.

Tom Andrews, the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, has reiterated these calls to “[s]top the flow of revenue into the illegal junta’s coffers” through coordinated, multilateral sanctions “on both senior junta leaders and their major sources of revenue, including military owned and controlled enterprises and the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise”.

Why would any human rights group take their money, stained with our people’s blood?

Even before the coup, MOGE was notoriously opaque. The company does not publish its accounts and has no official website. Although the nominally civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi pledged to reform Myanmar’s state-owned enterprises and increase transparency, these efforts stalled when her government was overthrown, leading to the country’s suspension from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative in February.

The Tatmadaw has already begun to take advantage of the new lack of accountability.

That same month, the Myanmar Investment Commission approved US$527 million in new foreign investment, 26% of which went into the oil and gas sector. Singapore, China and Thailand are now Myanmar’s largest sources of foreign investment.

Pouyanné, Total’s CEO, has pledged to “donate to associations working toward human rights in Myanmar, the equivalent of the taxes that we will effectively have to pay to the Myanmar government”.

Yadanar Maung says the offer “is a blatant attempt by Total to whitewash their complicity in atrocity crimes”.

“Why would any human rights group take their money, stained with our people’s blood?” she says.

Unable to go on strike without facing the threat of arrest, many Total employees feel there is little they can do to free Myanmar from military rule.

“I would be ready to join the Civil Disobedience Movement if the money flow would stop going to the junta,” Lwin Oo says. “I am earning from my job and donating [to the movement] as much as I can. I have to survive together with my family in this situation in Myanmar.”

Other workers would rather be done with the company altogether, if only they had other means to support themselves.

“I am worried about the situation in Myanmar now. I am already stressed. I don’t care about other things,” says Thiha Kyaw. “I am ready to quit.”

*Names of current and former Total workers have been changed due to fear of reprisals.

Nay Paing

Nay Paing is a Myanmar journalist based in France. He previously worked as editor of Coconuts Yangon. His work has appeared in VICE, Al Jazeera and The Guardian. Nay Paing est un journaliste birman basé en France. Il a précédemment travaillé comme éditeur de Coconuts Yangon. Son reportage a été publié dans VICE, Al Jazeera et The Guardian.