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BURMA: Victory for human rights

Matthew Dimmock
From Green Left Weekly, Australia
June 8, 2005
link to this article.

A group of Burmese villagers have finally gained justice for the suffering inflicted upon them by the Burmese military regime.

On March 21, oil giant Unocal announced that a settlement had been reached in an eight-year-long legal case in which the company was accused of complicity in egregious human rights abuses, including forced labour and relocations, rape and murder. The accusations were in relation to the company's involvement in the Yadana natural gas pipeline project in southern Burma.

The Burmese military was given responsibility for security of the project area, despite its well-documented history of repression and violence. The pipeline happens to pass through the remote Tenasserim region that is dominated by indigenous Mon and Karen peoples, who are at odds with the ruling military junta. The military then used the project as justification for rapid militarisation of the region and the subsequent human-rights abuses that led to the case against Unocal.

Although the amount of compensation remains confidential, the victory gives these villagers the chance to rebuild their shattered lives, as well as implement development projects in areas such as health care and education, targeting communities located in the affected region.

But perhaps more important than anything else, the landmark decision has given truth a voice. According to Earthrights International, an environmental and human-rights organisation that played a central role in the case against Unocal, one plaintiff said, "I don’t care about the money. Most of all I wanted the world to know what Unocal did. Now you know."

On April 4, ChevronTexaco announced plans to acquire Unocal for approximately US$18 billion. According to the April 10 Business, the company has indicated it will hold onto the tainted Yadana investments. In what should be a chill warning for its executives, ChevronTexaco is facing similar court action to Unocal over alleged complicity in human-rights abuses in Nigeria.

Unfortunately, the message that corporations cannot turn a blind eye to human-rights violations in the interest of greed and profit may be falling on deaf ears.

In January 2004, a deal was signed between an international consortium of Indian and South Korean corporations and the Burmese military regime to exploit the Shwe natural gas field, in the Gulf of Bengal off the western coast of Burma. A pipeline is to be built to export the gas through south-western Burma to India via Bangladesh.

Although in its infancy, the project is already bearing some disturbing similarities with the Yadana pipeline project.

Earthrights International stated in an August 2004 report: "If nothing is done, it appears likely that history will repeat itself. Forced labour and human rights abuses are still an ongoing problem throughout Burma, and it can be assumed that these violations will continue at any major development project site."

The new pipeline is to be built through the ethnic minority-dominated states of Arakan and Chin. Mirroring the Yadana project, the Burmese military have begun clearing a corridor for the pipeline without local consultation. The increased military presence, which is already pervasive in the region, will no doubt bring about a dramatic increase in forced labour and other human-rights violations.

Local inhabitants are justifiably concerned about the impact the Shwe pipeline project will have on their lives. Yet given the current political situation and lack of legal recourse in Burma, they are unable to participate in the decision-making process of a project that is likely to have dire consequences for countless communities in and around the pipeline corridor.

The dark irony of it all is that the gas will be pumped to India and the revenue (estimated at $800 million - $3 billion annually) will go into the military's already bloated coffers, while the local population, who enjoy at most two hours of electricity per day, are overlooked.

The victory for victims of the Yadana gas pipeline project serves as a warning to other multinationals considering entering investment partnerships with the Burmese military.

The Shwe gas pipeline project must be suspended until a democratically elected government holds power in Rangoon and the local population is able to participate in the decision-making process freely and without coercion. To allow the project to go ahead under the current political climate will further entrench the military’s authoritarian rule and its oppression of the Burmese people.

For more information and to take action against the Shwe gas pipeline project, visit http://www.shwe.org and http://www.earthrights.org.

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