Reports of Slave Labor on Pipeline Rouse Critics of Military in Burma

By Reese Erlich, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 12, 1995 | Go to article overview

Reports of Slave Labor on Pipeline Rouse Critics of Military in Burma


Reese Erlich, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


HUMAN rights groups are charging the military government of Burma with using slave labor to help build a natural-gas pipeline owned in part by Unocal Corp., a Los Angeles-based oil company.

Thousands of villagers are forced to build roads and act as porters for soldiers protecting the pipeline site, according to peasants inside Burma (also called Myanmar) interviewed by one of these groups. Previous reports about slave labor on the pipeline have come from refugees fleeing to Thailand.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi repeated the charges in a videotaped message Tuesday to a meeting in Manila on human rights organized by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. She urged foreign companies not to invest in Burma while forced labor is being used on such projects.

"In the long run, it will be the businessmen themselves who will be hurt investing at the wrong time," she said. Ms. Suu Kyi also called on her countrymen to form independent labor unions to protect themselves from forced labor.

The pipeline project has been controversial from its beginning, drawing fire from opponents of Burma's military government, including democracy leader Suu Kyi. "Any project that makes the people suffer is not one that I could support," she said earlier.

The $1 billion project, being jointly constructed by Unocal and France's Total oil company, is projected to bring natural gas from Burma to neighboring Thailand by the end of the century.

Unocal and Total strongly deny that forced labor or any other human rights violations occur on their project. Officials at both companies refused requests for interviews. But Unocal President John Imle told a group of environmentalists earlier this year, "We will build our own roads with our own labor, with no impressed labor."

The oil companies, however, have no control over what happens in rural villages far from oil-company base camps, according to critics.

The Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), a nongovernmental organization based in northern Thailand, regularly interviews Karens, one of the many Burmese ethnic groups waging guerrilla war against the military regime. One man from the village of Kanbauk told KHRG that some Burmese were hired to build access roads for the pipeline. But many others were press ganged.

"The forced laborers cut down the trees," he said, "then the paid laborers cleared them away." The English language daily Bangkok Post estimates that thousands of Burmese are forced to labor on pipeline-related work.

Zunetta Liddell, a researcher for Human Rights Watch/Asia, says the central government may formally allocate money to pay the laborers. But because Army salaries are quite low, she says, "The central government expects the local commanders to live off the people, and the laborer's pay is usually taken. …

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