Human rights groups have slammed Australian energy giant Woodside after its chief executive said the company would press ahead with a major gas development in Myanmar and suggested the nation’s former civilian leaders ignored the army’s grievances in the lead-up to the military coup.
Key points:

  • The Woodside chief executive says the company cannot judge if the military had legitimate grievances with Myanmar’s election
  • Human Rights Watch said Woodside’s comments were cynical and they should be calling for the release of detained civilian leaders
  • Woodside’s position is at odds with several Western governments

Dozens of governments have condemned Myanmar’s army after it seized power and arrested dozens of elected leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, on February 1.
The military said it had seized control because last year’s election, which delivered a convincing victory to Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, was riddled with fraud.
Those claims have been dismissed by independent election observers who say the poll was fair and credible.
But Woodside chief executive Peter Coleman said the company could not judge if the army had legitimate grievances.
“It’s not up to us to judge the veracity of grievances they have around the previous election process,” Mr Coleman said, in comments first reported by specialist publication Energy News Bulletin.
“I understand [the Army] put together quite an extensive folder of grievances around the election that they wanted to be heard, and they weren’t being heard.
“They were pushed up against a difficult decision point, the day of the coup was the day the new parliament was due to proceed.”
‘The antithesis of corporate social responsibility’
Armoured vehicles in the streets of Yangon as protest continue across Myanmar.
His comments drew a furious response from human rights groups in both Australia and Myanmar.
Elaine Pearson from Human Rights Watch said Mr Coleman’s comments were “cynical”.
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“I think this is really Woodside sitting back and quietly hedging its bets in its own self-interest,” she said.
“This is the antithesis of corporate social responsibility. This is a country which just had a coup. This is not the time to wait back and see what will happen.
“They should be picking up the phone and telling Myanmar’s army they should release civilian leaders and call for an end to abuses by the military.”
Mr Coleman is also directly at odds with several Western governments that have condemned the coup and accused the military of illegally seizing power.
Woodside chief executive Peter Coleman says Western government will be wary of pushing Myanmar further into China’s orbit with harsh sanctions.(Supplied: Woodside)
The US, Canada and the UK have since all imposed sanctions on some top officials in Myanmar.
Australia has been reviewing military cooperation with Myanmar, while Foreign Minister Marise Payne has repeatedly urged the junta to free civilian leaders and restore democracy.
Woodside doesn’t expect harsh sanctions against junta
Protesters including doctors, civil servants, students and monks have been demanding change since the coup.(AP)
Woodside is also pressing ahead with a major deepwater gas development off Myanmar’s west coast, known as A-6, in a joint venture with French company Total SA and the Myanmar-based MPRL.
Activists in Myanmar say the government earns almost $US1 billion ($1.28 billion) annually from natural gas.
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They have warned industry profits would help support the military regime, as well as fuelling corruption by the ruling generals.
Earlier this week the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur for Myanmar Tom Andrews also called on international businesses investing in Myanmar to take “immediate action” and “implore” the military to “return power to the people of Myanmar”.
“Businesses and investors should suspend or terminate activities with the Myanmar junta when the risk of involvement in serious human rights abuses can no longer be reasonably managed,” he said.
“I, and many others, would argue we have long passed that threshold.”
But Mr Coleman indicated Woodside would push ahead with the A6 project.
He also predicted that other Western countries would be unlikely to hit the military regime with “harsh” sanctions for fear of driving Myanmar further into China’s strategic orbit.
“It’s very early days in the coup, the military has committed to free and fair elections in 12 months,” he said.
“I think you’ll find, in my view, other Western governments will be reluctant to put up very harsh sanctions in place.
“Myanmar has made good progress in moving to democracy, the last thing they’d want is to push them away from that, potentially towards China.”
A Woodside spokesperson told the ABC the company would “continue to monitor the evolving situation regarding the Myanmar government, including any guidance from the United Nations and the Australian government on economic engagement in Myanmar”.
“While operating in Myanmar, Woodside has aimed to be a constructive foreign investor,” the spokesperson said.
“This includes investing in education, training and capability building as well as local content, using Myanmar goods and services where we can.
“In the ongoing development of Myanmar, economic stability and energy supply can play an important role.”