Unocal Implicated in Burma Strife

Although Unocal has been in business with Burma's military junta since 1992, the oil company's busy PR officials have always carefully guarded the details of the partnership.However, the Bangkok Post, an English-language newspaper in Thailand, cited government sources to report recently that soldiers hired by Unocal and Total, its French partner, have been engaged in violent campaigns against ethnic minority groups in the region. The soldiers were deployed to protect Unocal and Total's billion-dollar investment in the Yadana natural-gas pipeline, which in the past has been the target of bombings and other guerrilla action.Unocal's involvement in Burma has prompted landmark civil litigation, censure from the White House and an international call for economic sanctions. To date, twenty-three U.S. cities have passed ordinances barring city contracts with firms doing business in Burma.The reports that the foreign oil companies helped underwrite the military action were corroborated by contacts in Burma, by the Southeast Asia Information Network (SAIN) and by admissions of Total officials.The Bangkok Post on January 6 quoted a source from the Thai military who claimed that troops from the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) are being "backed financially by Unocal and Total." The forces include "an artillery battalion and five rapid-response battalions, two of them armored," the Post reported.Unocal and Total also control access to the region by determining which roads may be traversed, the paper said. Both Unocal and Total have denied any direct payment to the military for security services.Attacks against civilian villages and opposition base camps in minority areas are standard practice for the Burmese military, which ascribes to a well-publicized doctrine of ethnic cleansing. But activists are especially outraged by evidence that the latest attacks have been funded, whether intentionally or not, by the pipeline partners: Unocal, Total and the Petroleum Authority of Thailand."Unocal has hundreds of employees in the region," says Kevin Rudiger of the Burma Forum. "It's hard to believe them when they say they don't know what's going on. It certainly serves their interests to keep the pipeline region 'secure.'"According to Unocal spokesman Barry Lane, the latest allegations are "blatantly false." Says Lane, "There has been no support whatsoever, no funding in any shape or form, of the military on behalf of the project." He adds, "The situation in the pipeline area is normal."Unocal and Total are currently battling a lawsuit in a Los Angeles federal district court filed on behalf of villagers in the pipeline area over claims that SLORC troops, acting as security for the two companies, conscripted workers, displaced or leveled villages, and murdered those who refused to cooperate.Based on evidence presented to the court, Judge Richard Paez ruled that "The defendants have paid and continue to pay SLORC to provide labor and security for the pipeline." If the villagers' claims are true, ruled Paez, Unocal and Total were "essentially treating SLORC as an overseer, accepting the benefit of and approving the use of forced labor" during pipeline construction.Still in question is the exact relationship between Unocal and the military security forces. Anne Richardson, the plaintiff's attorney in the suit against Unocal, says that most of the documents relating to the company's relations with SLORC were submitted by Unocal under seal.According to sources in Burma and the Bangkok Post, five new battalions of SLORC troops recently joined the usual 30 battalions guarding the pipeline, and have commenced a vicious campaign in the area against members of the Karen ethnic group, which has traditionally opposed Burmese rule."The battalions were created with orders to 'protect' the pipeline," says Faith Doherty of the Thailand-based SAIN. "All of the battalions that have been created in the last five years are a direct result of the Western investment in that area, and those battalions would definitely be used in any military offensive."The Karen National Liberation Army, Burma's largest pro-democracy guerrilla force, has tried repeatedly to sabotage the pipeline. According to a report by EarthRights International and SAIN, a December 1996 Karen rocket attack against the Total base camp wounded six employees. SLORC retaliated by executing at least 11 local civilian farmers, the report said.According to Doherty, the pipeline security detail has massed for a "final assault" on the outgunned Karen army. "The Karen have been battered for a long time, and an enormous amount of their territory has been lost."This latest offensive is really about putting the nail in the coffin -- they want to completely destroy any opposition in the country," says Doherty. "SLORC has enlarged its army as a result of the oil investment. Because of the relationship between the oil companies and the regime, the army has been able to launch a new offensive in a region where it was previously impossible to do so."This article originally appeared in LA Weekly.

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