The 6th of October was the global day of action for Burma (also known as Myanmar), and activists and supporters demonstrated around the world for an end to the appalling actions of the repressive and vicious military junta (group of army generals) that rules the country. If you watched the news recently you might remember images of thousands of monks marching on the streets, before the brutal military crackdown. There is little or no news getting out of Burma now because the government shut off the internet and has started to seize mobile phones and cameras so that images of violent repression cannot escape. The junta has banned protesting and the expression of any other view apart from their own, which is that they are creating a “discipline-flourishing democracy” and unusually for a democracy, all opposition must be crushed. Contradictory? It sure is, but it is no laughing matter for fifty million Burmese.
Demonstrators marched in countries as varied as Thailand, France, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, as well as many more. One of the biggest protests in this country was in London, but they took place in every major city in the country. One of the less publicised, but nonetheless very well attended protests was in Oxford, where protesters managed to successfully stop almost everyone filling up at a Total garage from doing so for over two and a half hours.
On the face of it this action might seem to have little to do with Burma, since Total is a jointly owned French and American company. However, Total has a contract with the Burmese government, signed in 1992, and is the sole company operating in the country. Two oil pipelines have already been built, one to Thailand and one across Burma, and a third one is on its way, despite the fact that new investments from French companies in Burma were banned in 2004. The pipelines have been associated with serious human rights abuses for those working on them, such as forced labour, the use of civilians as human minesweepers, the use of children, and systematic rape of women. Total has been said to be the single biggest company propping up the junta’s regime.
Total is one of the five biggest oil companies in the UK and therefore wields an enormous influence both here and abroad. The French government has blocked measures such as sanctions against the junta due to the fact that Total has such heavy involvement there.
With all this in mind I went to a demonstration close by to Reading, by a Total garage in Oxford. A huge banner reading “Fuelling Oppression in Burma” left people in no doubt as to what the protest was about. Volunteers handed out leaflets showing a brief summary of the injustice of the military’s rule, and Total’s role in it, as well as petitions that concerned citizens could sign. The turnout was excellent, considering that the demonstration had not been as well publicised as other, larger ones in cities such as Birmingham and Manchester. In two hours we managed to stop the majority of people filling up at Total. The workers at the garage were understandably not very pleased but we gave them leaflets too and let them know that we have nothing against them since they are only doing their job. Many people did not have any idea of the things which this company is involved in and once they were informed most of them chose to fill up at one of two nearby petrol stations further along the road.
The atmosphere was very jolly and everyone was eager to meet new people and help each other out. The good weather helped with this as did the fact that most people were very friendly. We had support both from the local police who were assigned to watch the demonstration, and from passers-by, many of whom honked their horns at us as they drove past. Many people who had filled up promised not to do so again. The protest began at 2:30, and although most people had gone by half past four, three of us chose to stay until five, handing out leaflets to drivers.
We do accept that some people have no choice but to fill up there and we have nothing against people who do so, but I feel it is important that people have an informed choice about what it is that they are supporting when they fill up at a Total garage. At a time when many oil companies are regarded as unethical the idea that a company would openly fund one of the world’s most despicable regimes produces bad publicity and a lack of trust, so it is in Total’s best interest to pull out of Burma and in so doing, increase their profits due to winning back respect from people who have lost it for them. They should see that in the long term, due to the situation in Burma (with some states having had a civil war for over 20 years) staying in the country is unsustainable and bad for their business as well as for human rights.
Should you wish to find out more about Total and their involvement in Burma, please visit www.burmacampaign.org.uk/total_report.html. Please also sign the petition to help the Burmese protesters, which will be presented to the president of China after it receives a million signatures, at www.avaaz.org/en/stand_with_burma .