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The UN Singles Out Big Oil in Burma, With Good Reason

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In a surprising report last month to the UN Human Rights Council, UN Special Rapporteur (UNSR) on human rights Tomás Quintana recommended an official "commission of inquiry" into possible crimes against humanity and war crimes in military-ruled Burma (Myanmar).

Although the call for such a commission was widely covered in media and policy circles, a critical section of the report went completely overlooked and unreported: Quintana actually became the first UNSR to take specific aim at the ruling State Peace and Development Council's corporate partners, singling out problematic foreign oil companies operating in the country.

Coming after a 5-day mission to Burma, the report pulls no punches. It notes "rampant forced labor" connected to the country's four main natural gas projects, including the transnational Yadana gas pipeline to Thailand and the Shwe gas pipeline to China.

Confirming what's long been documented, the report notes the Yadana and Shwe companies "rely on the Myanmar military to provide security for their projects."

Mentioning by name only South Korea's Daewoo International and Thailand's PTTEP, Quintana in effect implicated a who's who of Big Oil: The Yadana project, meaning "treasure," is operated by Total (France), Chevron (US), and PTTEP; and Shwe, meaning "gold," is operated by Daewoo International, state-owned companies from India and South Korea, and the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC).

While this is the UNSR's first mention of the human rights impacts of foreign-led energy projects in Burma, at EarthRights International (ERI), we've documented for years how overland gas pipelines and other billion-dollar installations in the country are physically secured by the Tatmadaw -- the Burmese Army -- resulting in forced labor, killings in cold blood, rape, torture, and other abuses against local residents.

The Tatmadaw is a decentralized, complicated organization of hundreds of thousands of poor, uneducated, predominantly ethnic Burman soldiers. It's the most powerful political actor in the ethnically diverse country, and the most brutal. It also happens to include thousands of impressionable children, forced from their families, trained to be soldiers, and taught in the way of indiscriminate violence.

In 2009, one former child soldier explained to ERI how he was taken by the Tatmadaw from his family at age 15, and how his craven superiors ruthlessly burned the feet of children who tried to escape their clutches. This particular soldier "graduated" to provide security for Total and Chevron's pipeline, where he in turn conscripted local villagers for forced labor.

For years, Total and Chevron's pipeline has resulted in abuses like this: forced labor, killings, rape, torture. In recent weeks we documented two extrajudicial killings and numerous instances of forced labor committed by battalion #282, known locally as "Total's battalion," a notorious regiment that's been securing the project since the 1990s.

This is a grave problem. The burgeoning and controversial corporate social responsibility agenda hasn't effectively addressed it, regardless of what some companies and analysts claim, and victims of corporate human rights abuses still lack access to justice, despite lawsuits brought by Burmese villagers against Total and Unocal (now Chevron) in the companies' home states.

What's more, there's another batch of problems with Burma's gas sector. These involve cold hard cash, and were also noted by Quintana: For years, lucrative gas exports have lined the camouflaged pockets of the ruling military regime while the ailing country has sunk deeper into poverty. That's inherently problematic. In 2009, ERI calculated how Total and Chevron's pipeline generated over US$7.5 billion dollars from 2000-2008, the lion's share going to the ruling junta.

This cash influx has only complicated the already deep military-politico complex in the country, not least of all by contributing to high-level corruption. Last September, we exposed how gas revenues from Total and Chevron's pipeline were being siphoned by the Burmese elite into offshore bank accounts in Singapore, rather than to the national economy or development.

Now, the same junta managing this cash is orchestrating the country's first elections in 20 years, controversially excluding over 2,100 political prisoners (by virtue of keeping them behind bars), including Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party just recently decided to boycott the elections.

In this context, the decision was made by the junta and its partners to simultaneously move forward with the construction of yet another pipeline: the Shwe gas pipeline to China, operated by Daewoo and CNPC. Costing nearly US$2 billion to construct, it'll be almost 20 times longer than Yadana, moving gas valued at a whopping US$30 billion, according to the Shwe Gas Movement.

The pipeline comes amidst a palpable threat of civil war between the Tatmadaw and non-state ethnic armies near the northern end of the project, in Shan State, where there's a danger of thousands of refugee out-flows to China.

Villagers in some areas of the project aren't thinking about elections as much as the risk they'll lose their land and have to do forced labor. Where construction has already begun, so too have land confiscations and persecutions against the pipeline's dissenters.

In a politically unstable "election year," when the world's attention will focus on Burma, one would think that risky transnational mega-development projects would be approached with caution, by both the junta and its corporate partners.

Apparently, that's not the case.

Rather than move full speed ahead, Daewoo International, its partners, and CNPC should instead listen to the Shwe Gas Movement and EarthRights International: the companies should postpone the Shwe pipeline and any work on offshore installations until there's no risk the project will contribute to human rights violations -- that would be good business. In the meantime, the companies should promote public participation in development decisions; conduct transparent, inclusive third-party environmental and human rights impact assessments according to international standards; and practice complete revenue transparency, including publishing taxes, fees, royalties, bonuses, and social benefits paid to the Burmese authorities.

For companies who've ignored the risks and already made the mistake of being involved in a fully operational oil and gas project in Burma -- like Total, Chevron, and PTTEP -- they ought to take immediate steps to mitigate their harmful impacts. At a bare minimum, they should:

1. Practice complete revenue transparency.
2. Facilitate complaints of forced labor to the International Labour Organization.
3. Acknowledge an accurate sphere-of-responsibility, determined by actual social and political impacts, and take steps to mitigate the local harms caused by Tatmadaw forces securing the project.
4. Commission ongoing human rights and environmental impact assessments according to international standards, including the safe participation of local communities.

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