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Firms that invest in Burma 'have paid for bullets'

By Terri Judd

The Burma Campaign had a stark message for British companies trading in the country yesterday: "If there is a crackdown and the regime opens fire, you have paid for the bullets."

The Campaign in the UK says up to 150 international companies, including many from Britain, trade with Burma – particularly in the travel, timber, gems and clothing sectors – making a total investment of £1.2bn every year.

The pro-democracy activists yesterday welcomed Gordon Brown's calls for "immediate international action" and restraint from the military junta, as protests grabbed the world's attention. But they said it was time the Prime Minister backed up political words with heavier sanctions against the junta.

"The Government has generally taken a lazy approach. When it comes to economic pressure, it has done nothing," said Mark Farmaner, spokesman for the Burma Campaign UK. "The US banned investment in 1997 but we have not. There are no trade sanctions at all apart from limited sanctions by the EU in 2004."

The campaign also alleged companies trading with Burma exploited a loophole which allowed them to invest via tax havens such as Bermuda and the British Virgin Islands.

It further alleged that businesses investing in Burma were not doing so for altruistic reasons, but because they were attracted by employment conditions that could be described as favourable to employers: normal salaries are less than 25p a day, unions are banned, there are limited health and safety laws, and the minimum working age is 13.

Tourism was also an important source of income for the regime, the campaigners argued. They have been happy for Britons to visit if they have relatives who are buried in Second World War graves in Burma. But the campaign quoted Aung San Suu Kyi from December 2002 as saying: "We have not yet come to the point where we encourage people to come to Burma as tourists."

The most notable British company on the list is the aerospace engine group Rolls-Royce.

Last night Rolls-Royce defended its work in Burma, insisting it was limited to the overhaul of three engines for two airlines which was carried out to ensure they were safe to operate and did not "result in passenger fatalities". A spokesman added: "We are not seeking any further business beyond this very limited overhaul work."

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