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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 July, 2003, 21:19 GMT 22:19 UK
Tobacco giant urged to leave Burma
Burmese pro-democracy supporter outside the Japanese Foreign Ministry in Tokyo
Many foreign firms have quit Burma after pressure
Cigarette giant British American Tobacco (BAT) has been formally asked by UK ministers to stop doing business in troubled Burma.

BAT last month said it had no intention of pulling out of the country.

But meeting company chairman Martin Broughton on Thursday, Foreign Office Minister Mike O'Brien said the firm had agreed to consider the request, and give a formal reply soon.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has already said the government does not believe British companies should be trading with or investing in Burma while its military regime continued to suppress basic human rights.

After Thursday's meeting, Mr O'Brien said: "The Burmese people want nothing more than to be left free from repression to build an inclusive, tolerant and prosperous society.

"But they need help and encouragement from their friends in order to emerge from the shackles of this repressive and incompetent regime."

As the talks were announced last month, a BAT spokesman was quoted by AFX News saying: "At the moment we have no intention of pulling out. That's our position."

Mounting pressure

BAT runs a cigarette factory in Burma which employs about 500 people.

International pressure to isolate Burma's military regime has been growing since the arrest on 30 May of pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

She is believed to be being held in a two-room hut in the notorious Insein prison outside Rangoon.

Many foreign firms have quit Burma after pressure from human rights and democracy campaigners.

Soft drinks firm Pepsi, travel agent Kuoni, underwear maker Triumph are some of the firms that have pulled out, while UK oil explorer Premier is in the midst of doing so.

Precedent fears

BAT and two giant oil firms, TotalFinaElf of France and US group Unocal , are among the shrinking number of multinationals who remain.

BAT has said it will pull out of Burma if EU sanctions make it illegal to operate there.

But it has reportedly been concerned that the pressure from the UK Government sets a potentially damaging precedent which could worry its shareholders.

"We're not a government or an international statesman. We'll do business in countries if it's legal to do so," the BAT spokesman said last month.

He said the firm had proposed a formal meeting with the Foreign Office before Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested.




SEE ALSO:
Japan freezes aid to Burma
25 Jun 03  |  Asia-Pacific


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