Oil Exploration Threatens Burma's Indigenous Peoples


Several major international oil companies have recently come under fire from human rights and environmental groups for their plans to build a natural gas pipe-line in Burma. Organizations such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club charge that investment in the exploitation of Burma's gas reserves by French-based Total, Texaco and UNOCAL (US), Nippon Oil (Japan), Premier (Great Britain) and the Petroleum Authority of Thailand amounts to direct support for the repressive military junta that rules Burma, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). The SLORC has been accused of massive human rights violations, many of which have been allegedly perpetrated upon indigenous groups such as the Karen and Mon.

If completed, the 260-mile pipeline would tap an estimated 2-5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and run through the YeTavoy region in Burma's southern panhandle into Thailand. The pipeline would, predict rights groups such as Green November 32, run through the Thai-Burmese border region, bringing with it serious environmental, social and military implications for the ethnic groups living along the border, especially the three million Karen. The region is one that neither the Burmese nor the Thai militaries have been able to control for the past 40 years. It is thus likely that the SLORC would employ violent military action and human rights abuses in order to secure the area.

The Burmese government-in-exile, known as the National Coalition Government for the Union of Burma, alleges that the project has already forced up 150,000 Burmese families from their homes and into work for the military. The National Coalition Government charges that 120,000 to 150,000 families have been forced to work as unsaid "volunteers" in infrastructure projects for the pipeline. The exiled leaders have urged multinational oil companies to end support for the pipeline, echoing the sentiments of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Betty Williams: "The military continues to uproot, rape, and murder indigenous people as it moves to cleanse the border areas of ethnic insurgents and plunder the country's rich natural resources." Some rights groups argue that foreign oil company money would in effect by providing a subsidy for these activities.

The oil companies in question have for the most part defended their involvement in Burma. Total president Serge Tchuruk says his company's presence in the country is "constructive" and will help develop a country in serious need of energy. UNOCAL's chief executive Richard J. Stegemeir declared at a news conference recently that, "I think our record on human rights is as good or better than any other company." He noted that a team of UNOCAL officials visited the pipeline area shortly before he made his statements and they had found no evidence of forced labor or destruction of villages.

Texaco has denied any involvement in the development of the pipeline project. "While hydrocarbons have been found, no determination of commerciality has yet been made, making it premature to speculate on the impact of the company's possible development in the area," said company president Alfred DeCrane, Jr.

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