Sunday, May 17, 2009

Downer dumps junta-linked Burma airport plan

INFRASTRUCTURE and engineering group Downer EDI has abandoned plans to design a Burmese airport for a company with close links to the police state's oppressive military junta.

A fully owned subsidiary of Downer EDI -- a top 100 Australian company -- had contracted to design an airport in the country's new, remote capital city, Naypyidaw, until those plans were revealed by Asian media.

"We are taking action to withdraw from this assignment in an appropriate manner on the basis that whilst the design work is being undertaken in Singapore, the project itself is based in Burma," Downer EDI said in a statement on behalf of CEO Geoff Knox.

"This assignment was legitimately accepted via delegated authority within our subsidiary company."

Downer EDI said the Singapore office of its fully owned subsidiary CPG had been contacted by a "Singapore-based entity" to undertake the design for a passenger airport at Naypyidaw Airport.

That entity is understood to be an arm of Burmese conglomerate Asia World, which has strong links to the ruling junta.

At least two of Asia World's executives -- founder Lo Hsing Han and his son, managing director Tun Myint Naing, also known as Steve Law -- are blacklisted by Australian and US authorities.

Under federal government sanctions, transactions involving the transfer of funds or payments to the two men -- along with 461 other Burmese figures -- is prohibited without the approval of the Reserve Bank of Australia.

Human rights activists have accused the Burmese Government of using slave labour to build its new capital in a remote region of the country.

The creation of Naypyidaw -- 320km north of former capital Yangon and further away from the nation's boarders -- is thought to be a move by the secretive junta to stave off perceived foreign threats.

Downer EDI spokeswoman Maryanne Graham did not return calls yesterday. A spokeswoman said the Government was unable to comment on individual cases. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it referred to the Australian Federal Police any information giving rise to a reasonable suspicion a crime had been committed. The size of the contract the group had held with Asia World was unclear and it was unclear why Downer EDI had become involved with the Burma-linked project. The group dropped the project after its connection to Asia World was revealed by the Asia Sentinel media outlet.

In the a vague prepared statement, EDI said it upheld a "zero harm" policy.

"We take zero harm very seriously and while not insinuating anything against our direct client in Singapore, we believe this action to be in keeping with the intent of our policy," the group said.

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