Minister blocks Burma oil project over rights abuses

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The Independent Online

Ministers have told a British oil company to scrap a £130m pipeline project in Burma amid growing concern over torture and forced labour under the country's totalitarian regime.

John Battle, the Foreign Office minister, has also banned the advertising of trade opportunities with Burma on a government website after the practice was highlighted by The Independent.

Mr Battle announced measures against the Burmese government yesterday after a meeting of EU ministers. Exports of equipment which might be used for repression would be banned by European states, Burmese leaders and their supporters who are banned from visiting the EU would be named for the first time and their assets would be frozen if they tried to move them here, he said.

"There have been appalling human rights violations, with killings, rape, torture, forced relocation, forced labour, political detentions, lack of press freedom and oppression of ethnic minorities such as the Karen people," Mr Battle said.

He called the chief executive of Premier Oil, Charles Jamieson, to the Foreign Office to express his "deep concern" over the firm's involvement in the Yetagun oil pipeline project.

Mr Battle said: "I really expect Premier to do the decent thing without having to resort to legal pressure."

But although Mr Battle said that Mr Jamieson responded "courteously" to the request to pull out, he had given no assurances one way or the other.

Mr Battle revealed that he had acted to stop the British Trade International website, a joint Foreign Office and Department of Trade and Industry initiative, from advertising export opportunities to Burma.

Notices on the site included numerous openings in Burma, whose military regime has been condemned across the world. The US bans new trade with Burma but the website backed by the British Government displayed projects including tourism infrastructure development, oil and gas.

Mr Battle said: "When I heard that was the case I asked for it to be stopped. Our policy as a Government is not to encourage investment and trade with Burma."

Mr Battle said Britain had also pressed for action by the International Labour Office, which has agreed for the first time in its 80-year history to condemn Burma for its use of forced labour. The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, was at the forefront of moves by European Union foreign ministers in Brussels earlier this week to strengthen their common position against Burma.

Mr Jamieson said Premier Oil respected the Government's human rights concerns but had no intention of pulling out of its Burma operations at present.

"Although we are pressured to pull out of areas, we strongly believe that dialogue and engagement as well as sustainable development are key to effecting changes," he said.