By Tarjei Leer-Salvesen
NorWatch was contacted by the Norwegian Burma Council, who asked us to investigate what companies are involved in exports to Burma from Norway. Our investigations show that Ulstein Tenfjord is the only Norwegian company that has exported anything to Burma so far this year. The export in question is advanced steering gear for use in ships, worth NOK 543,973 (USD 64,000). Ulstein has not stated to NorWatch what the gear will be used for, but it is clear that it can be used in ships in the offshore petroleum industry. The petroleum industry is one of the economic pillars that let the regime afford to continue its severe oppression of the country's people, and hence part of the reason why Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the party that won the country's last elections, is calling for an economic boycott of the country.
- A slip
NorWatch called Ulstein Tenfjord and stated our errand. The switchboard put us through to Mr Austvoll in Sales.
- Hi, I'm calling from the NorWatch newsletter. I have some questions about your sales of steering devices to Burma this year.
- I don't know anything about that. There are many departments in Rolls Royce, you know, even several different departments here at Tenfjord, says Austvoll.
Austvoll obviously is not happy about the inquiry. After consulting with a colleague, he puts NorWatch through to Amdam, also in Sales.
- I can neither confirm nor deny this, Amdam says at once.
- But we are not really calling for confirmation whether you are trading with Burma or not. We have solid enough sources to write that anyway. I would like a comment of a more political nature. Norwegian authorities are calling for a boycott of Burma. The country's legally elected leader is in house arrest and is also calling for a boycott. And yet, Ulstein Tenfjord has chosen to sell the country equipment, equipment needed by the military junta. Why?
- I don't know how this has happened. There's a lot of wheeler-dealing with sales agents, you know.
- Where are your agents based? In Singapore...?
- For all I know, the agent might be based in Burma. But I honestly don't know. Let me check a bit, and we can talk again, Amdam says.
After Amdam has checked up, NorWatch calls back to ask if he has contacted Singapore. He hasn't, but now he has discussed the matter with the management. Amdam is ready to give his political comment. To wit:
- Aung San Suu Kyi is a really nice guy. I would have liked to be on the barricades with him, uh, her.
- Should I take this to say that there has been a slip? If Ulstein Tenfjord is prepared to get on the barricades against the junta, wouldn't you have to change your sales policy?
- Yes, there's been a slip, says Amdam.
- It's bad if this export goes to an offshore industry that we know is connected with forced labour. That underlines the need for a ban on trading with Burma, so companies know what they have to keep to, says Christian Moe of the Norwegian Burma Council.
New orders turned down
NorWatch asks to be informed who it is that has received the equipment in Burma, and whether the trade we have registered was a one-off thing or part of a series of deliveries. Amdam promises to check it out and get back to us. We never get to hear from Amdam again, though. From here on, the Information department takes over. We get a call from Arnfinn Ingjerd, head of information at Ulstein.
- Thanks for keeping tabs on us, he says heartily. - You people in The Future In Our Hands (FIOH) are doing a phenomenal job! I was actually a member once, and of course I know Erik Dammann (founder of FIOH) well, is he still with you?
- Dammann is still a member, yes, but you are not, anymore?
- No, but now I'll consider joining..., says Ingjerd.
- That's nice, but I've contacted you because Ulstein is trading with Burma. The Norwegian government is calling for a boycott. You have gone against Norwegian policy in this field. Why?
- I think what has happened is that the person responsible for this sale has sold the device to Myanmar...
- Myanmar is the military junta's name for Burma.
- Yes, and our man probably hasn't realised that Burma and Myanmar is the same country. Everybody knows that we ought to boycott Burma.
- Has your staff had insufficient training?
- It might look that way, yes, admits the head of information.
- Who was it in Burma that received this steering device?
- I can't answer that, that is the usual practice in the supplier-customer relationship. This is confidential information, Ingjerd replies.
- Do you understand that it matters to us? I am wondering if Ulstein has dealt directly with the military junta's oil company. Can you deny that?
- No, I don't want to answer that question.
The head of information can, however, tell us that alarms went off when NorWatch first made its inquiry. Only days or hours earlier, Ulstein had received another request from the confidential customer in Burma, who wanted to purchase more equipment from Norway.
- NorWatch's inquiry opened our eyes with regard to Burma. We became aware of the issue and immediately agreed to turn down the new order. This will not happen again, Arnfinn Ingjerd assures us.
Ingjerd later sends an e-mail to give an account of Ulstein's Burma policy from now on:
"Although there are no official restrictions on trade by the Norwegian government against Myanmar (as the EU has, by the way) there seems to be a clear majority in Stortinget [the Parliament] that is negative to the political situation in the country. We wish to respect this."
Eva Ødegaard, of the Foreign Ministry, does not concur with Ulstein's account of Norway and the EU having differing policies in this field. Norway has supported the EU's official statement, which does not imply any economic sanctions, Ødegaard says.
Nearly a million people in Burma are currently suffering under forced labour and slave labour, according to figures from the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Recently, the ILO for the first time in history called for an economic boycott of a country. The country was Burma, and the reason was the regime's lack of respect for human rights.
In Norway, ILO contact Tor Monsen voiced the call for a boycott together with Norwegian Church Aid, the International Department of the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions, and the Norwegian Burma Council.
On November 18, the Foreign Ministry made clear its views in the Dagsavisen daily. The government is not prepared to go for a statutory boycott of Burma on its own. Nor would the Foreign Ministry promise to raise the issue in the UN Security Council so that several countries would implement sanctions against Burma together. But there is agreement to maintain the existing policy on Burma.
This policy means that Norwegian companies are encouraged to avoid doing business with the country.
When a company such as Ulstein rejects new deliveries to Burma for political reasons, as indicated above, this can send a signal to Burmese authorities. Therefore, NorWatch asks information officer Ingjerd to confirm that Ulstein will communicate to its customer in Burma the same explanation for rejecting new deliveries.
- I cannot confirm that, no, sorry, I simply don't know whether or not we are sending the same signals that way, Ingjerd replies.
"Aung San Suu Kyi is a really nice guy. I would have liked to be on the barricades with him, uh, her."
- Amdam, sales manager, Ulstein Tenfjord
"NorWatch's inquiry opened our eyes with regard to Burma. We became aware of the issue and immediately agreed to turn down the new order. This will not happen again."
- Arnfinn Ingjerd, information officer at Ulstein
Ulstein Tenfjord is a subsidary of Ulstein Holding. The company makes steering devices for use in ships. This years's sale to Burma is recorded with a value of NOK 543,973 in the Central Bureau of Statistics' export statistics. The rest of the Ulstein concern is involved in ship-building and supplies equipment to a broad range of customers in the shipping industry. In November 1999, Ulstein was bought by the British corporation Rolls Royce.
Parliamentary question on Burma
After this affair became public, Odd Einar Dørum (Liberals) raised the issue in a parliamentary question. He asked what the government intends to do to follow up the ILO's request for sanctions against Burma. Dørum referred to the disclosure of Ulstein Tenfjord's exports of oil-related equipment, and to the fact that imports of tropical timber and other goods from Burma have nearly doubled over the past year. He said this shows the need for Norwegian sanctions.
International development minister Ann Kristin Sydnes said the government does not plan to introduce unilateral Norwegian sanctions; instead it will work with other countries hoping to get a common, critical Burma policy. However, Sydnes thought it would be very hard to get support for actual international sanctions. Sydnes further said that she was disappointed over the fresh figures on imports and exports from Burma, and that the government expects business and industry to abide by the recommendations not to trade with the regime.
Norwatch Newsletter 12/00