Unocal Corp. President John Imle strolled into the lion's den Friday when he held a surprise meeting in Myanmar with Nobel laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the most formidable critic of his firm's controversial $1.2-billion pipeline in that Asian nation.
Imle's surprise move--praised by opponents of Myanmar's brutal military regime--represents a dramatic turnaround
for the El Segundo-based energy company. Previously, Unocal's chief executive had refused to meet Myanmar's leading opposition figure on the grounds that it would be construed as meddling in domestic politics.
While a Unocal executive described Friday's meeting in the capital city of Yangon as purely informational, the timing is intriguing. Early next week, President Clinton is expected to sign an executive order banning new U.S. investment in the troubled country, a move that would hinder any expansion plans by Unocal and others.
U.S. firms are also feeling pressure from a spurt of new local and state laws prohibiting government agencies from doing business with firms involved in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. This week, the New York City Council passed such a law, and similar measures are pending in Connecticut and Texas.
Bo Hla-Tint, the finance minister of Myanmar's government in exile, called Friday's meeting a victory for Myanmar's opposition, which won a parliamentary election in 1990 but was not allowed to take power. Hla-Tint said he had asked Unocal executives to meet with Suu Kyi for years but had always been rebuffed.
"We hope they finally understand, they have to listen to the democratic voice of the people," said the Burmese leader, who now lives in Washington.
Imle's apparent change of heart about meeting Myanmar's leading opposition figure is not a political endorsement but simply represents a desire to "personally brief" Suu Kyi about the pipeline project's contributions to the impoverished nation, according to David Garcia, a Unocal spokesman.
Myanmar's military leaders apparently approved of the meeting since they control access to Suu Kyi's residence.
"They were useful discussions," Garcia said, declining to elaborate on the substance of the talks.
Observers in Washington and elsewhere said the Unocal meeting could be a public relations move designed to bolster Myanmar's international image at a critical juncture. On May 31, the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations, the region's leading economic group, is scheduled to decide whether to admit Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia to its powerful club.
The Clinton administration has asked ASEAN to hold off on Myanmar's admittance, given its poor human rights record, political instability and key role in the world's heroin trade. But ASEAN leaders, who oppose U.S. efforts to isolate Myanmar, have indicated they intend to go ahead.
Myanmar's leaders are feeling the economic squeeze, which has intensified since the Clinton administration announced its new investment ban. Anheuser-Busch Cos. and Seagram Co. have joined a long list of firms that have pulled out of the country, citing the worsening economic situation and bad publicity.
There are also rumors circulating in the investment community that at least one of the two remaining major U.S. investors--Atlantic Richfield Co. and Texaco Inc.--is seriously considering withdrawing from Myanmar.
At Texaco's annual meeting this week, Chairman and Chief Executive Peter I. Bijur confirmed the company was considering the "sale or swap" of its investment in a natural gas operation in Myanmar. He said that action was not in response to political pressure but to new opportunities that had arisen as a result of a natural gas sales contract signed by Texaco last spring.
"We believe this review is consistent with good business," he told Texaco shareholders.
Al Greenstein, a spokesman for Arco, refused to comment Friday on his company's Myanmar plans. Of the three oil companies, Arco has the smallest exposure, having spent close to $30 million on two offshore exploration contracts in the South China Sea.
* DEAL SEALED
Russia, Kazakhstan and Oman open the way for a $2-billion pipeline. D2