Blind Eye in Burma

Blind Eye in Burma

Images courtesy of EarthRights

Multinational corporations that partner with the Burmese military and military-led government share the responsibility for human rights abuses, argue two representatives of EarthRights International at UCLA.

Violence can escalate, as villagers gradually rebel and the military retaliates.

While the energy industry has performed a remarkable feat in delivering energy to a large percentage of humankind in a relatively short period of time, the benefits of resource production often evade the least advantaged actors, who bear the brunt of the negative impacts. In Burma, also referred to as Myanmar, large-scale natural gas projects have directly and indirectly led to violations of basic human rights through the complicity of multinational corporate actors. These abuses are ongoing.

This topic was the focus of a colloquium sponsored by the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies on March 11, 2008, which featured two representatives from the Thailand office of EarthRights International, Naing Htoo and Matthew Smith. Entitled "Energy Security: Security for Whom?", the presentation assessed the past, present, and future human rights impacts of large-scale natural gas extraction in military-ruled Burma, and the implications of these impacts for corporate responsibility.

Specifically, the presentation focused on the ongoing human rights abuses associated with the Yadana gas project in Burma operated by corporations Chevron (USA), Total (France), and PTT (Thailand), and the threat of future human rights impacts of the Shwe gas project in Burma being funded by Daewoo International (South Korea).

EarthRights International does not claim that the corporations are engaging in human rights violations themselves, but rather that they partner with the repressive Burmese military regime. It is the Burmese military, in its capacity as contractor for the big energy projects, that commits the serious human rights abuses. The energy companies are aware of the gravity of the problem--for example, Unocal settled a lawsuit on the matter in 2005--but continue to do business with the military.

The Burmese military uses forced labor to clear forests and build roads.

The Yadana project involves offshore natural gas drilling and a series of pipelines to ship the gas across Burma primarily to Thailand, the principal consumer. It was begun in the mid-1990s, and has been accompanied by a litany of human rights abuses, following the military coup in Burma in 1988.

Specifically, the Burmese military is accused of abusing ethnic minority villagers in the areas through which the pipeline runs. The government confiscated families' land for the pipeline project. People were forcibly relocated from their traditional villages. Villagers were conscripted to provide forced labor for clearing forests, building roads and infrastructure such as army camps, and providing pipeline security.

According to Smith and Htoo, even when major construction ended in 1998, the villagers' problems did not end. Construction is ongoing, and security is often cited by the military as an excuse to harass villagers trying to engage in their traditional livelihood activities of farming and gathering. Villagers are also forced into transporting material through the forest and doing road maintenance for the military or the gas companies on an ongoing basis. Even on the rare occasions when the oil companies pay villagers for their labor, soldiers quickly extort the money from the payees and take it for themselves.

Since this situation has been continuing for close to two decades, violence can escalate, as villagers gradually rebel and the military retaliates. Even more serious human rights violations have been documented, such as torture, rape, and extrajudicial killings.

The large U.S. corporation involved in the Yadana project was originally Unocal. Unocal was purchased by Chevron in 2005. It now controls 28.6% of the Yadana project, in partnership with French, Thai, and Burmese corporations. In their public statements, the companies in partnership with this oppressive government do not acknowledge any complicity in this worsening human rights situation.

On the contrary, following the large-scale protests violently put down by the Burmese military last year, Chevron issued a statement saying, "Our community development program[s] . . . help improve the lives of the people they touch and thereby communicate our values, including respect for human rights."

With the discovery of another large natural gas field offshore in Burma in 2004, and the developing Shwe project that would construct new pipelines in additional areas of Burma to send natural gas to both China and India, EarthRights International and other concerned groups are expressing alarm about the potential for further violations.

Published: Wednesday, March 12, 2008