UMaung Maung was no stranger to the brutality of the government of Burma (called Myanmar by its military rulers). A former geologist and leader of the national mineworkers’ union, Maung was forced to flee the country in 1988 when, following a massive citizens’ uprising, a new military government began to arrest, torture and execute thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators. But Maung was nevertheless surprised when, nine years ago, he came across hundreds of Burmese crowded into a cluster of straw huts along the Thai-Burma border, a makeshift village that sank in the mud when it rained.
Why had they fled Burma’s lush Tenasserim district, a peninsula of coastline, farmland and thick forests, to live here like cattle? In a series of interviews with Maung, leader of the exiled Federation of Trade Unions of Burma, the villagers de-scribed armed military men expelling indigenous fishermen from their homes and farmers from their land, razing villages and enslaving their inhabitants. They reported that soldiers forced everyone from children to the elderly into labor, making them cut through thick swaths of jungle, build military installations and haul army equipment. All of this, Maung later learned, in order to prepare the area for a new gas pipeline.
One woman said soldiers came to her home as she was cooking over an open fire. When her husband attempted to flee, they shot him and shoved her and her baby into the flames, killing the baby and leaving her with disabling scars. Others described seeing their neighbors executed when they refused to leave their homes. Many who joined forced-work details collapsed from exhaustion or disease after weeks of toiling under a scorching sun with little food or water. Two girls said they were raped by soldiers at knifepoint.
Many of these victims are now plaintiffs in two landmark lawsuits against Unocal, part of a consortium of companies behind the gas pipeline. The outcomes may well determine whether American corporations will ever be forced to account for the brutal human rights abuses being committed around the world in their interests.
As has now been well documented by EarthRights International, a human rights group co-founded by former Burmese student activist Ka Hsaw Wa, the military began clearing the land and enslaving locals only after the oil companies initiated negotiations with the Burmese government to build the $1.2 billion project in 1990. The accounts collected by Ka Hsaw Wa and Maung are corroborated by volumes of sworn deposition testimony from villagers, filed under seal but cited in several court opinions. According to the testimony, plaintiffs’ lawyers and further interviews conducted by such independent human rights organizations as Human Rights Watch, hundreds of villagers were driven from their homes and farms, and forced to work at gunpoint to prepare the area for the pipeline.
Led by the French oil company Total (now TotalFinaElf), the consortium entered into a joint venture with the Burmese government around 1995 to transport vast quantities of natural gas from the offshore Yadana field in the Andaman Sea through a pipeline that would extend east to Thailand. The pipeline would have to pass through Tenasserim, a region whose ethnic groups opposed military rule. Because its agreement with the companies required the Burmese government to protect the pipeline from sabotage, the government increased its military presence along that thirty-nine-mile stretch. According to testimony from villagers, many of those forced into service–cutting down trees, digging out stumps, building barracks and helipads–were beaten regularly by guards. Some of these same helipads were used to ferry Unocal officials when they came to inspect the project’s progress.