OPINION: One month after the military seized power in Myanmar and against the backdrop of anti-junta protests becoming increasingly bloody — at least 18 pro-democracy demonstrators reportedly lost their lives on 28 February alone — Australia's Woodside became the first oil company to announce it would scale back operations.

Similar to other upstream players in Myanmar, Woodside once again found itself in the crosshairs of human rights groups calling for the company to sever ties with the military government.


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The operator said it would reduce its workforce in Myanmar, adding it would be reviewing its future upstream business there.

However, it is unclear whether that is because Woodside does not want operations in a nation where the military has seized power and human rights abuses may increase, or whether it is simply due to the deteriorating security situation.

Total and Chevron (Unocal) are among those upstream players with producing assets that can be expected to remain in Myanmar, if past form is anything to go by.

These supermajors have withstood years of pressure from non-governmental organisations, including facing — and settling — lawsuits in their home nations relating to their operations in Myanmar.

Total — which has in the past openly admitted that forced labour used to be commonplace in the pariah nation — stood up to the junta before the 2015 general elections, its stance leading to forced labour all but being eradicated near its Yadana gas field onshore infrastructure.

Anti-corruption advocacy coalition Publish What You Pay is among NGOs that have called for other extractive companies to follow Woodside’s lead and for those with producing assets in Myanmar to put all royalty payments into accounts that the military cannot access.

Lower revenues flowing to the junta would mean less money to buy weapons.

But the oil companies are not the ones at fault here, and by pulling out of Myanmar they will shut down one conduit to the junta than can actually make a difference to those on the ground.

Taken control: a soldier stands guard in Yangon a day after the surgical coup that saw Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi again detained Photo: AFP/SCANPIX

While in Myanmar in the run-up to the 2015 general elections, I spoke with people — including youths — on the streets of Yangon on polling day itself. Their desires were simply stated and included: a democratically elected government; the reopening of non-military universities; better education and healthcare; and open internet access.

The nation has a poor human rights record and the military’s latest bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators must be condemned.

What Myanmar needs is a swift return to something approaching democracy — it should not be forgotten that 25% of seats in the government are reserved for the Army— plus equality for the many ethnic groups such as the Shan, Kachin and Karen.

Oil companies and other businesses operating in Myanmar — especially those with global exposure — can be a positive force for change.

It is all too easy for armchair activists to condemn those who choose to invest in Myanmar.

The problem lies not with these companies but with the oppressive military regime that appears to want to return the country to the dark ages the population endured before the 2015 polls — the country's first openly contested general elections in more than two decades.

(This is an Upstream opinion article.)