Published on Monday, May 22, 2000 by Inter Press Service
US, British Oil Corporations Tied To Myanmar Human Rights Abuses
by Danielle Knight
WASHINGTON - Forced labour and other human rights
associated with building natural gas pipelines in Myanmar
(formerly known as
Burma) continue with the knowledge of US and European corporations
partially own and manage the projects, according to a new report
Monday by Earthrights International (ERI).
''The abuses are not incidental or unrelated to the pipelines - they are a direct result of western companies' investments,'' says the report, 'Total Denial Continues.'
Three prominent companies have invested in the region to construct pipelines: Union Oil of California (UNOCAL), and Total, a French company are involved in the Yadana pipeline. And the British company, Premier Oil, is part of a consortium building the Yetagun pipeline.
The 180-page report is based on first-hand testimony gathered between 1995 and 2000 from several hundred villagers who claim to either be victims or witnesses - including Burmese army deserters - to recent abuse.
Ka Hsaw Wa, a member of Burma's Karen ethnic minority, who is co- director of ERI, gathered the interviews which document hundreds of recent cases of rape, execution and confiscation of property carried out by the military.
Most of the testimony revolves around the Yadana pipeline which was completed early this year and has already begun operations.
The 1 billion dollar project, operated by a consortium that includes UNOCAL, Total and the government of Myanmar, carries natural gas through Burma to Thailand.
Many people interviewed from Karen, Tavoyan and Mon villages in the pipeline regions say the area was never heavily militarised before construction began. Now they claim they are victimised by an army which has been condemned for its abuses by the US State Department, the United Nations, and many other organisations.
''I wish the foreign companies would go back to their country ... so the troops will go back to Rangoon,'' says one Tavoyan villager interviewed in 1999.
The report also examines reports of forced labour and other rights abuses surrounding the 70 million dollar Yetagun gas pipeline. Premier Oil, acting as operator of the project, is part of a consortium currently developing off-shore gas reserves in the Yetagun field in the Gulf of Martaban.á Yetagun ''is as much a problem as the Yadana project, and Premier has surely benefited as much from these crimes as have Total and UNOCAL,'' says the report.
"Total Denial Continues" also includes company documents never before made public that ERI says prove that corporations knew that forced labour was being employed on their projects.
''The companies knew from their own consultants that abuses were occurring surrounding their projects, yet they continued involvement,'' according to the report.
All three companies strongly deny accusations of complicity in rights abuses.
Charles Jamieson, the Chief Executive of Premier Oil, says he disagrees with activists who want to isolate Myanmar.á ''We believe in constructive engagement rather than closing the country off to the world,'' he says.
John Imle, former president of UNOCAL, admits that when the project was first being constructed, the military used conscripted labour for porterage.
''I know that in the early days of this project, military units in the areas of the project were using conscripted labour,'' he said. But he says this does not happen anymore.
''When I'm visiting these people in these villagers they say, 'We're glad you're here, please stay,'' says Imle, referring to health and education facilities provided by the company.
In 1997, United States federal court agreed to hear a lawsuit brought against Unocal and Total by 14 victims for alleged human rights abuses associated with the Yadana project.
Federal Judge Richard A. Paez declared that transnational corporations and their executive officers can be held legally responsible for violations of international human rights law in foreign countries, and that US courts have the authority to adjudicate such claims.
The decision, contained in a 38-page written order, calls some of Unocal's arguments ''inexplicable'' and ''hard to imagine.''
Plaintiffs in the case are represented by a team of lawyers from ERI, the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, Hadsell & Stormer and the Law offices of Paul Hoffman. The case is seen as ground breaking since it lays the foundation for victims in other countries to sue US corporations for human rights violations.
Since 1994 activists have been trying to get company shareholders to approve resolutions that would force UNOCAL to review its operations in Myanmar. But at each shareholder meeting, the proposals have only received a small percentage of the vote.
With their protest outside UNOCAL's shareholder meeting near Los Angeles Monday, human rights and religious groups, and pro-democracy Burmese organisations hope to again draw attention to the issue.
Copyright 2000 Inter Press Service