BANGKOK — In the rainforests of southern Burma, Unocal and its French partner, Total, are beginning construction of a billion dollar pipeline to carry natural gas from offshore fields in the Andaman Sea across southern Burma and over the border to Thailand. To ensure the pipeline’s construction, the armies of two governments are committing atrocities, including the use of slave labor on a massive scale, ethnic cleansing, extra-judicial executions and environmental degradation.
An April 1994 Unocal statement promises, “We would never allow our activities anywhere to be the cause of human suffering,” as the company disclaims all responsibility for the massive suffering inflicted on its behalf.
Beautiful land, bitter history
WWith over 135 “national races,” Burma is among the most ethnically diverse countries on earth. It is also among the most beautiful and biologically diverse, with most of the earth’s remaining teak rainforests. Unocal’s pipeline will cut through those rainforests and the lands of at least three indigenous peoples.
Over the last three decades, burdened with an increasingly vicious and incompetent government, Burma slid into civil war, poverty and paranoia. The military government often forbids use of non-Burman languages or cultural displays, orders entire populations into “strategic hamlets” and forces ethnic minority women into “marriages” with Burmese soldiers, the local euphemism for rape.
By the late eighties, the regime’s ineptitude and corruption had bankrupted the economy, which led to a country-wide pro-democracy uprising in 1988. Led initially by students, the uprising was soon joined by the middle classes and lower ranking elements of the military. These forces were joined and then led by Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Burma’s martyred independence hero.
Two years old when her father was assassinated, Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced “soo chee”) lived for many years with her mother in India, who was then Burma’s ambassador to New Delhi. After studying in England, Suu Kyi married a scholar who became an Oxford don. They settled down to raise a family and Suu Kyi wrote about Burma’s intellectual history. In 1988, she returned to Burma to care for her dying mother and was there when the 1988 uprising took place. She spoke on behalf of her father’s vision of a democratic Burma and quickly rose to the leadership of the pro-democracy movement, in part because her stature made her difficult for the army to silence.
In a series of massacres bloodier than that of Tiananmen Square, Burma’s military battered down the pro-democracy movement and arrested its leaders, including Suu Kyi. Appalled by the brutality of the massacres, foreign donors and international agencies suspended aid, and Burma’s already battered economy collapsed. To restart the economy, the ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) opened the country’s resources to foreign exploitation. Seeking any possible source of revenue, the generals auctioned off the world’s largest remaining teak forests, rich fishing beds in the Andaman Sea and gas and oil concessions.
To court international approval, the junta staged elections but kept Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest and counted on pressure and manipulation to control the outcome of the vote. To everyone’s surprise, Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won more than 60 percent of the popular vote and 82 percent of the seats in parliament. The government party won just 2 percent of the seats in parliament. The regime responded by annulling the election results and arresting the election’s victors. Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for leading the struggle against the Burmese military and its multinational financiers.
MMost of Burma’s oil and gas concessions yielded only dry holes, but the money the oil companies pumped in through signature fees and other exploration costs helped the military regime survive its leanest years. The military responded to the 1988 uprising by exerting secret police control over the daily life of the citizenry and initiating a military expansion drive. The military has almost doubled the size of the army, which has been outfitted with $5 billion in new Chinese weaponry. With no external enemies, the military has these weapons trained on the domestic population.
Little of the money pumped into Burma by the oil companies gets past the generals. Oil companies have paid $40 million in “signature fees” directly to the Burmese junta. The regime continues to spend well over half of its revenues directly on the military. With negligible government investment in public health and welfare, the plight of the average villager has deteriorated steadily.
One reason why money does not trickle down from the generals is that they heavily rely on forced labor. This practice has been common in Burma since the army took power in 1962. Lacking transport, the military dragoons villagers to carry its supplies. Unable to secure foreign development aid in recent years, the army has rounded up ethnic minority villagers to build roads, railroads, airports and other facilities.
No official figures exist, but one Burma watcher estimates that 500,000 people provide unpaid, forced labor on any given day. Labor assignments typically rotate within a village, so that in a village of 20 households, 20 laborers are required at all times. After a period of labor, the 20 laborers are replaced by 20 others from the village. Some three million people are believed to have been subject to some form of such slave labor.
Human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned Burma for its use of slave labor, as has the United Nations, the United States and the European Community. The Burmese government has repeatedly defended what it calls “voluntary labor” on cultural grounds. A Burmese official quoted in a Thai newspaper said, “Myanmar [Burma] has a long tradition of voluntary labor, extending back to the old kings. People don’t have to do it, but they do it because it is good for their villages and towns.”
Yadana: curse of the jewel
UUnocal and Total’s discovery of natural gas off the Gulf of Martaban promises to provide a new revenue stream for the generals. The Yadana (or “jewel”) field is estimated to have reserves of six trillion cubic feet of natural gas, with a U.S. market value of $6.5 billion. The pipeline is set to begin pumping in 1998, with an initial capacity of 130 million cubic feet per day, expanding to 525 million cubic feet per day by 2000. The pipeline will run undersea for 350 kilometers before making landfall, first at Heinze Island and then finally at Hpaungdaung Yaw. It will snake 65 kilometers across southern Burma’s Tenasserim Division, through mangrove swamps, then up the Tavoy River valley and down the Zinba River valley before ascending the final 20 kilometers through densely forested mountains along the Thai-Burma border. Once over the border in Thailand, the pipeline will run 110 kilometers to an electrical generating plant in Ratchburi. The sole consumer of the natural gas will be the Thai electrical authority; none of the natural gas will be used by the Burmese people.
Under the terms of the final agreement, signed in February 1995, Thailand will pay Total, Unocal and SLORC $400 million per year for the natural gas, making the Yadana field the military junta’s largest hard-currency earner.
In constructing the pipeline, Unocal has allied itself with a brutal and illegitimate government in its decades-long war against three ethnic groups, the Mon, the Karen and the Tavoyan peoples. To put a pipeline through the lands of these people — areas never controlled before by the central government —will require Unocal and SLORC to crush these ethnic groups. The repression is being conducted by the Burmese and Thai armies.
No refuge in Thailand
TThe Thai Government, as the sole customer of the pipeline, has a strong interest in seeing the project completed. Especially eager to speed the project to completion are certain members of the government who have a direct financial interest in it. To see that the pipeline gets built, Thai military authorities have been pressing the ethnic minorities in Burma to sign cease-fires which amount to conditional surrenders. The Thai military’s leverage over these ethnic groups comes from two sources. First, because most of the territory they hold lies along the Thai-Burma border, it is difficult for ethnic minorities to travel without the permission of Thai authorities. Minorities subject to Burmese military attacks must also avoid running afoul of the Thai forces because of their need to cross the border when attacked at home. More than 75,000 indigenous people from Burma now live in camps in Thailand and hundreds of thousands of ethnic Burmese have fled to Thailand’s cities and villages. The Thais are keeping the refugees as hostages to the pipeline’s progress.
In early 1993, the Thai Army forced 7,000 Mon refugees to relocate from a camp in Thailand to a new one just over the border in Burma. The Mons protested the move because the new camp was less than five kilometers from the nearest Burmese army outpost. As the refugees were being forced back, a businessman associated with Thailand’s National Security Council delivered an ultimatum to the Mons, who were seeking autonomy. The NSC warned that they must sign a cease-fire immediately because Mon refugees would be in danger if the fighting continues.
The Burmese army attacked the camp in July 1994, following an incident in which two SLORC soldiers who went to the camp to collect women for sexual use were shot by camp residents. After the army’s attack, the refugees fled back across the border to Thailand. The Thai army ordered them to return to Burma. Trapped between the two armies, the refugees camped on the Thai side of the border under monsoon rains, refusing to move.
Abhisit Veijjajiva, Thailand’s chief government spokesman, said Thailand “would not send people back across a border if we felt it was not safe for them to go back.” On the same day Veijjajiva made his statement, Amnesty International released an urgent appeal on behalf of the refugees saying, “The Thai authorities cannot claim that this is a safe area. No one should be forced to go there.” The Thai government finally settled the matter by cutting off food and water supplies, forcing the refugees back across the border. The Associated Press quoted Poldeg Worachatr, acting director of the Thai Foreign Ministry’s Press Division, as saying that Thailand would not resort to pressure tactics to force the refugees out, and he insisted “authorities must have a good reason for cutting the refugees off from their rice supplies.”
The new “Death Railway”
TThe actions of the Burmese government to ensure completion of the pipeline make the Thais look compassionate by comparison. Under the terms of the pipeline contract, the Burmese government provides security for the project. The Burmese have moved 17 battalions into the Mon, Karen and Tavoyan areas to secure control over the pipeline right of way. To supply those troops, the government is building a railroad and motor way between the cities of Ye and Tavoy.
The railway is an extension of the old “Death Railway,” which gained notoriety during World War II and was made famous by the movie Bridge over the River Kwai. Although it was the use of westerners for slave labor that gained international notice, then, as now, it was local Mon and Karen villagers who bore the brunt of the demand for forced labor. Between 70,000 and 120,000 slave laborers are building the railway. Government troops round the laborers up into Conscription Control Centers (CCC), a euphemism for concentration camps.
Unocal argues that there is no connection between its pipeline and the Ye-Tavoy railroad. The pipeline and railway will intersect at a place called Kaleinaung, which is where the Burmese army has built up the largest of its CCCs, housing thousands of slave laborers. In an Orwellian twist, Unocal’s President, John Imle, cites the increased population at Kaleinaung, a site along the pipeline’s path, as evidence that the pipeline has not dislocated villages. It is not yet clear whether the pipeline itself will be built with slave labor, but the Asian Wall Street Journal quoted the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Thailand as saying that “there seems to be a general pattern of making use of the local labor force without paying them. ... I know slave labor has been used for other purposes, and once the gas pipeline is to start, it is most likely that it will be done the same way.”
Unocal’s Imle, however, insists that the pipeline will neither use nor benefit from forced labor. “We will build our own roads, with our own labor, with no impressed labor, and with no labor that is not paid,” he asserts. “We have said that before, I will say it again, I will stand on that. There is no way that any government can impose on us the use of slave labor. We will not do it.” Imle denies any connection between the railroad and Unocal’s operations. “We can tell you categorically the railroad is not being built to support our operation. ... Particularly because there has been such controversy over it we wouldn’t use it even if we wanted to use it.” Imle will not acknowledge any company connection to human rights abuses unless they are committed by his employees or take place on his doorstep. “We will not allow those [human rights] violations to take place to our benefit, meaning on our property,” Imle said in a January 4, 1995 meeting with activists.
Even if forced labor on the railway and the pipeline is ignored, the pipeline has already caused an increase in forced labor because the Burmese army doesn’t move without porters. Hamstrung by a shortage of trucks, the army dragoons porters for even mundane tasks. Local villages are now providing the porters to support the 12,000 soldiers mobilized to provide security for the pipeline and its supporting infrastructure projects. The army uses about two porters for every soldier, so “pipeline security” enlists tens of thousands of slave laborers.
Nei Pe Thein Zea, a Mon spokesperson, says, “Violence to destroy the pipeline would be our last option, but in the end we would have no choice.” He warns that the SLORC “will force slave labor on the people without payment. This violates our fundamental human rights, so we will oppose the pipeline by any means.”
Imle’s response to charges that his pipeline is bringing slave labor in its wake is to blame the victims. “If you threaten the pipeline there’s going to be more military,” Imle says. “If forced labor goes hand and glove with the military, yes, there will be more forced labor. For every threat to the pipeline there will be a reaction.”
Unocal’s arrogance regarding the project seems to know no bounds. Unocal has publicly promised to obey all the environmental laws of Burma, a country which has none. Total and Unocal officials refuse to meet with the indigenous peoples whose lands they are taking, and company officials dismiss allegations of forced labor or human rights abuses in the area on the grounds that the people making the allegations have never been there. It is for good reason that outside human rights groups have been unable to get to the pipeline. Unocal won’t allow neutral observers to visit the area. The thousands of Burmese troops providing “pipeline security” would shoot them if they try.
I In late January 1995, the Burmese army launched a lightning offensive against ethnic Karens along the Thai-Burma border, capturing the headquarters of the Burmese pro-democracy movement and driving 15,000 more Karen refugees over the border. The attacks have sparked condemnation from the White House as well as Amnesty International.
Burmese troops are laying siege to the last major Karen base along the border and are also attacking Karen areas near the pipeline route. The attacks appear to be developing into an all-out offensive to crush resistance by the Karen, and relief workers fear that another 100,000 refugees will be forced to flee the area. Karen and Mon officials in early February 1995 publicly vowed to destroy the pipeline using “any means necessary.” The attacks on the Karen coincide with the February 3 signing of the final pipeline contract between Total/Unocal and Thailand. At the signing of the gas contract, a Total official was quoted in a Thai newspaper as refusing to discuss the attacks on the Karens because it was time to “celebrate,” not a time to “talk politics.”