The image was stunning: tens of thousands of saffron-robed Buddhist monks marching through the streets of Rangoon, protesting the military dictatorship of Burma. The monks marched in front of the home of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who was seen weeping and praying quietly as they passed. She hadn't been seen for years. The democratically elected leader of Burma, Suu Kyi has been under house arrest since 2003. She is considered the Nelson Mandela of Burma, the Southeast Asian nation renamed Myanmar by the regime.
After almost two weeks of protest, the monks have disappeared. The monasteries have been emptied. One report says thousands of monks are imprisoned in the north of the country.
No one believes that this is the end of the protests, dubbed "The Saffron Revolution." Nor do they believe the official body count of 10 dead. The trickle of video, photos and oral accounts of the violence that leaked out on Burma's cellular phone and Internet lines has been largely stifled by government censorship. Still, gruesome images of murdered monks and other activists and accounts of executions make it out to the global public. At the time of this writing, several unconfirmed accounts of prisoners being burned alive have been posted to Burma-solidarity Web sites.
The Bush administration is making headlines with its strong language against the Burmese regime. President Bush declared increased sanctions in his U.N. General Assembly speech. First lady Laura Bush has come out with perhaps the strongest statements. Explaining that she has a cousin who is a Burma activist, Laura Bush said, "The deplorable acts of violence being perpetrated against Buddhist monks and peaceful Burmese demonstrators shame the military regime."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, at the meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, said, "The United States is determined to keep an international focus on the travesty that is taking place." Keeping an international focus is essential, but should not distract from one of the most powerful supporters of the junta, one that is much closer to home. Rice knows it well: Chevron.
Fueling the military junta that has ruled for decades are Burma's natural-gas reserves, controlled by the Burmese regime in partnership with the U.S. multinational oil giant Chevron, the French oil company Total and a Thai oil firm. Offshore natural-gas facilities deliver their extracted gas to Thailand through Burma's Yadana pipeline. The pipeline was built with slave labor, forced into servitude by the Burmese military.
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The original pipeline partner, Unocal, was sued by EarthRights International for the use of slave labor. As soon as the suit was settled out of court, Chevron bought Unocal.
Chevron's role in propping up the brutal regime in Burma is clear. According to Marco Simons, U.S. legal director at EarthRights International: "Sanctions haven't worked because gas is the lifeline of the regime. Before Yadana went online, Burma's regime was facing severe shortages of currency. It's really Yadana and gas projects that kept the military regime afloat to buy arms and ammunition and pay its soldiers."
The U.S. government has had sanctions in place against Burma since 1997. A loophole exists, though, for companies grandfathered in. Unocal's exemption from the Burmese sanctions has been passed on to its new owner, Chevron.
Rice served on the Chevron board of directors for a decade. She even had a Chevron oil tanker named after her. While she served on the board, Chevron was sued for involvement in the killing of nonviolent protesters in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. As in Burma, Nigerians suffer political repression and pollution where oil and gas are extracted, and live in dire poverty. The protests in Burma were actually triggered by a government-imposed increase in fuel prices.
Human-rights groups around the world have called for a global day of action on Saturday, Oct. 6, in solidarity with the people of Burma. Like the brave activists and citizen journalists sending news and photos out of the country, the organizers of the Oct. 6 protest are using the Internet to pull together what will likely be the largest demonstration ever in support of Burma. Among the demands are calls for companies to stop doing business with Burma's brutal regime.