Working in the NGO community in Northern Thailand, you can't help but hear about the Burmese refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. The camps are filled with hundreds of thousands of Burmese refugees who have nowhere to go and are unable to return home. It is easy to point the finger at the Burmese government for the domestic circumstances that lead to mass numbers of refugees fleeing to Thailand and ending up in the camps, and clearly the corrupt and brutal government is at the root of the problem. But what about the corporations that cooperate with the government and supply the ruling military junta with a steady stream of revenue? What about the corporations that turn a blind eye to massive human rights violations carried out by the military in the course of the joint projects?
In Burma, human rights violations are committed on a daily basis by the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). The people are denied basic freedoms, violently repressed and deprived of economic opportunity. The vast majority of the funds that allow the SPDC to remain in power come from foreign investment and joint development projects with multinational corporations (MNCs). These MNCs operate in Burma with no legal accountability for the human rights abuses that are committed during and in furtherance of their projects.
The oil and natural gas industry earned the government of Burma (through the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise 'MOGE') approximately 2.16 billion US dollars in 2006 and was its single largest source of foreign exchange. A full 40% of the government budget is spent on the military, (Richards-Bentley, Nicholas. Human Rights Abuses in Burma: ASEAN May Be Able to Stop the Bullying), ensuring that power remains concentrated and the people remain too poor and oppressed to object.
The Yadana pipeline project, run by Total of France and Unocal (now Chevron) of the United States in partnership with MOGE, was the first large international pipeline in Southeast Asia. However, it is more famous for the horrific human rights abuses inflicted on the population by the Burmese military during the construction of the pipeline. The military was hired to provide security for the project, and in the course of carrying out this task the military forcibly relocated entire villages, conscripted massive amounts of forced labor, and pillaged local villages, in some cases raping and murdering the villagers.
Unocal's awareness of and complicity with the abuses committed by the military in furtherance of their project was extensive enough that a claim against the corporation by a group of Karen villagers in US District Court survived the initial stages of proceedings, before being settled out of court. US District Court Judge Richard Paez refused to dismiss the case against Unocal, concluding that: "The allegations of forced labor in this case are sufficient to constitute an allegation of participation in slave trading." (Tolley, H. & Lawrence, A. Doe v. Unocal: Forced Labor and Corporate Liability). SLAVE TRADING!?!
Instead of addressing the problem head on, Unocal concerned itself with "the demarcation between work done by the Project and work done 'on behalf of' the Project," noting that "[w]here the responsibility of the Project ends is very important." (Tolley, H. & Lawrence, A. Doe v. Unocal: Forced Labor and Corporate Liability).
The lack of social and environmental accountability mechanisms for monitoring multinational corporations under existing national and international laws has left a gap that has allowed corporations to act without any legal repercussions - particularly in developing countries. The results have been devastating as corporations focus narrowly on maximizing wealth, while demonstrating a blatant disregard for human rights and the environment in the communities in which they operate. Unocal's involvement in the Yadana project in Burma is one example of a corporation taking advantage of their unsettled legal status to exploit a poor and underdeveloped nation and the civilians that live there.
A recent report by the NGO Earthrights International claims that the human rights abuses caused by the Yadana project are continuing, and equally troublesome is the fact that foreign investment has increased over the last four years - particularly in the oil and gas sector. Currently, foreign investments in oil and gas projects involve at least 27 companies from 13 countries ("Burma: Foreign Investment Finances Regime", Human Rights Watch. NY, Oct.2, 2007). Foreign investors have a stake in at least 30 different oil and gas fields. The majority of the contracts for the 30 fields have been signed in the last 4 years, including 10 deals between September 2006 and September 2007.
Last week an agreement was signed between a consortium led by the South Korean trading company Daewoo International, the military regime in Burma, and the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) for the sale and transport of natural gas from Burma's Bay of Bengal to Yunnan Province, China. The deal marks a significant step toward a transnational gas pipeline to China.
The pipeline will undoubtedly result in massive human rights abuses and the corporations involved will most likely choose to deny responsibility while gaining a huge profit directly as a result of immense human suffering. The Unocal response to the human rights abuses that resulted from their project indicates a strong tendency to distance and deny. After all - it is just company policy, it isn't my decision, no one told me, and there was nothing I could do about it. Right?
The fact that corporations can be aware of a situation like what was going on with the Yadana project and actively choose to do nothing about it is disgusting. The fact that many people did and still are making a lot of money from the project makes it all the more cold and calculated.
How much is one forcibly relocated village worth to shareholders?
How about the murder of one man, woman or child?
I know what the answers to those questions should be; what scares me is what some corporations' actions and decisions has indicated that the answers are.