4 December 2013

Christine Lagarde speaks to reporters in 2019 (Reuters).

The Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society, which describes itself as the “world’s leading platform featuring women’s views and voices on major social and economic issues,” is hosting its inaugural conference in Rangoon on Friday and Saturday (6- 7 December). The meeting will be the third Forum event this year, with others previously held in France and Brazil.

The Forum, a subsidiary of French advertising and public relations conglomerate Publicis Group, has partnered with the French Embassy and 13 corporate sponsors – including Pepsico, Total, Accor and Sanofi – to conduct the event. Panel discussions will address the role of women in Burma’s economic and political opening, touching on issues including responsible foreign investment, entrepreneurship and peacebuilding.

A litany of high-profile speakers are expected to be in attendance, including Aung San Suu Kyi and the International Monetary Fund’s managing director, Christine Lagarde. More than 40 business, academic and civil society opinion leaders from Burma, the region, and further afield are scheduled to partake in 15 panel discussions over the two days.

French companies account for a disproportionate number of the Forum’s corporate sponsors. Christophe de Margerie, the CEO of Total S.A, one of the world’s six “superpower” oil companies, is scheduled to participate in a panel discussion on responsible investment along with noted financial journalist Gwen Robinson and Michael Issenberg, Chief Operating Officer for the Asia-Pacific of Accor Hotels. Accor’s first venture in Burma, a five-star Novotel hotel in partnership with Burmese tycoon Zaw Zaw’s Max Myanmar group, is currently under construction in Rangoon’s Kamaryut township. Zaw Zaw’s sprawling corporate empire remains subject to US targeted sanctions, but he is free to do business with European firms after the last EU sanctions were lifted in April.

Total is the single largest Western investor in Burma. Its presence in the country dates to 1992 when it broke ground on the Yadana offshore gas project and pipeline in southern Burma with its American partner Unocal, which was subsequently bought by Chevron in 2005. After the imposition of EU and US sanctions in the late 1990s, its investment in Burma was one of very few “grandfathered” through, and its operations were allowed to continue.

In 1997, a group of ethnic Karen villagers took Unocal to court in the United States, alleging the venture was complicit in “forced relocation, forced labor, rape, torture and murder” during the pipeline’s construction, resulting in an out-of-court settlement.

Aung San Suu Kyi gave Total her blessing in 2012, calling the firm a “responsible investor in Burma”, but in May the company became embroiled in a bribery scandal involving Iranian officials, landing it nearly US$400 million in fines to the United States and France.

The for-profit forum is not the only event of its type to have been held in Rangoon this year, with an unrelated, civil-society-led Women’s Forum occurring in Rangoon in September. Jointly led by the formerly exiled Women’s League of Burma and the Women’s Organizations Network, the three-day forum attracted some 400 participants, and called for the release of female political prisoners and greater legal protections for women.

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