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BURMA IN CHAINS: U.S. CORPORATIONS
Subject: BURMA IN CHAINS: U.S. CORPORATIONS PROFIT FROM SLAVE LABOR
BURMA IN CHAINS: U.S. COMPANIES PROFIT FROM SLAVERY
>From The Progressive (October 1995, pp.32-35)
By Brad Miller
The Border Area Development Program is close to reaching the goals set
forth under the Master Plan," drones a wax-like figure on the television
news. It is her mouth that moves, but it is the numbing propaganda of the
State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), Burma's repressive
military regime, that seeps from the T.V. The "news" is supplemented with
a footage of the army, training amid staged explosions and folk music. The
SLorc-controlled television stations and newspapers--the only news sources
the government allows--say the border regions are being developed to
"strengthen unity and friendship among national brethren."
But on the border, in the homeland of teh Karen, Mon, and other
ethnic minorities, there is no folk music song track as teh army drives out
the tribal people to claer a path for foreign investment.
Padauk and pyinkado trees riseout of the jungle and disappear into
the fog more than 100 feet above the ground. Below, in a clearing, two Mon
refugees hold onto a pale pink pig, his head on a stump. The screaing
starts when they smash his skull with a sledgehammer. The pig doesn't die,
but runs into the jungle, followed by some growling dogs and laughing Mon.
More screams float from the jungle, and then it is quiet, as four Mon
emerge from the fog, carrying the pig, one man holding each pink leg.
Later, twelve men and two women gather in a large hut. They are
among the 700 refugees who have arrived at this border camp within the last
two months, adding to the 2,000-plus people already here. The recent
arrivals left their homes and walked for four days across the mountains.
Some did not make it. They were shot by the Burmese army, called the
Tatmadaw. The government troops had been forcing themto work on the
Ye-tavoy railroad, an extension of the "Death Railway" constructed by teh
Japanese army during World War II.
To build the "New Death Railway," the Tatmadaw takes one person per
Mon and Tavoyan household, often holding them in guarded labor camps. If a
family can't provide someone to work, it must pay fine. The workers are
not paid, and are not given food. Sometimes they must rent their
construction tools. They are given neither medicine nor rest if they are
sick. If they stop working, the soldiers beat them. Sme work in chains
for twenty four hours straight. Young and old, women and men are treated
One man in his mid-thirties was arrested for being a suspected
rebel and put in wooden stocks for four days, beaten, and then forced to
work for six months.
Another man fled after his twenty-one-year-old cousin, a mother of
two, was tied to a pole and raped by three Tatmadaw soldiers. They poked
her with a bayonet and then raped her again. Then they took all her
belongings, including her earrings.
A sixty-year-old woman had to pay the SLORC because her family
could not provide a worker. When she ran out of money, she had to leave.
Only forty-five of ninety families were left in her village. The rest had
fled their homes and farms.
The Karen and other rebel groups living in Burma's border regions
have been battling the government since 1948. After a generation of
murders, disappearances, and starvation, National League for Democracy
leader Aung San Suu Kyi led students and monks in massive, nonviolent
demonstrations in 1988. The protests ended as 10,000 people were shot down
in the streets and thousands more were detained and tortured.
The State Law and Order Restoration Council seized the control of
the government and changed the country's name to Myanmar, imposed martial
law, and placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest.
The Burmese people continue to be bludgeoned by the military junta.
And although the U.S. government has declared its support for the
democratic movement, it has done little to put that support into practice.
Meanwhile, the U.S. corporations have eagerly embraced Asian and European
companies' policy of "constructive engagement" in Burma.
Using the invested dollars of companies like Unocal, Texaco, ARCO,
Total, CALTEX (a joint venture of Chevron and Texaco), and Pepsi, the
Burmese government carries out environmental destruction and genocide. The
SLORC has an embassy in Washington and retains its seat at the United
Nations. The U.S. embassy is open for business in Rangoon, with a DEA
presence and a commercial attache available to provide companies with
advice on how to invest in Burma.
Since the SLORC's creation in 1988, oil companies have provided
bewteen $400- and $500 million to teh military regime. Between 60 to 80
percent of this money is used to arm the Tatmadaw.
Recently, Secretary of State Warren Christopher has hinted that the
United States may take an even more conciliatory stand with the SLORC. The
release of Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest on July
10, 1995, may give the State Department a reason to relax its posture on
Burma, and fuel corporate propaganda that says "constructive engagement" is
In early February of 1995, the government's Myanmar Oil and Gas
Enterprise signed a $1 billion contract with the consortium of oil
companies, including the United States' Unocal, France's Total, and the
Petroleum Authority of Thailand, to supply natural gas through Thailand via
a pipeline through Mon and Karen land. As politicians celebrated the deal
in Bangkok, the Tatmadaw drove 10,000 more people acorss the Thai border.
Aung San Suu Kyi's release from house arrest came shortly after the
Burmese ambassador returned to Rangoon from Washington, D.C., to brief the
SLORC leaders on the mood of the COngress and on possible sanctions against
the junta. It came shortly before a conference of the Association of the
Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the announcement by Senator
MitchMcConnell, Republican of Kentucky, that he would introduce a
trade-sanctions bill in Congress that would ban U.S. companies from trading
with or investing in Burma. While the SLORC has attempted to create a
positive image of itselfby releasing Aung San Suu Kyi, it has launched new
military offensives against the Karens and the Karen National Union (KNU).
Aung San Suu Kyi herself has criticized foreign corporations for
"coming to do business when it is a matter of life and death for all of
us." If Unocal and Total proceeded with their pipeline construction, a
200-foot-wide scar will be cut from the Andaman Sea through the rain
forest, twenty-seven miles to Nai et Taung, wetlands, riverbeds, and
farmland will be destroyed, and the offshore section will damage fragile
coral reefs and fishing grouns.
The Tatmadaw has started to relocate the inhabitants along the
pipeline route, forcing them to set up refugee camps along the Thai border.
In a Karen camp south of Nai et Taung, Than Min, the village doctor, draws
a map in the dirt to show the flight of the people.
"First the SLORC army forced us into Thailand," he says. "Then the
Thai military burned our village. They did it twice. Now we must move
Thailand does not recognize Than Min's people as refugees, and the
Thai army hasbeen cutting off medicine and rice supplies provided by
nongovernmental organizations. The shortages are designed to force the
fleeing villagers back into Burma and pressure the rebels to sign ceasefire
agreements with the SLORC.
Than Min believes his people are being moved around to make way for
"It will come out of Burma at Nai et Taung and pass right near
here," he says, pointing to the forest-covered mountains. "Tomorrow more
families will leave here for Burma. They will walk twenty kilometers.
This is not good. Fisrt we need the fighting to stop, then we can go back
to Burma. In that order."
But it is unlikely that fighting will stop any time soon."
"As the pipeline is built, the fighting will follow it," says Ye
Kyaw, who runs a Karen refugee camp inside Burma. Many of his camp's
residents arrived from the pipeline area. They left because they were
tired of being forced to construct roads and military installations for the
The SLORC has recently moved seventeen battlions into the area to
clear out rebel resistance, using the unwilling aid of villagers.Amnesty
International has issued a report that the Tatmadaw has been using
civilians to carry weapons and ammunition into combat zones. They also use
them as human mine sweepers.
The pipeline's path through the rainforest will bisect the Karen's
territory, allowing the Tatmadaw to carry out its "Four Cuts Strategy":
depriving the rebels of information, food, finances, and recruits.
Insurgent groups like the Karen National Union amd the New Mon
State Party have vowed to sabotage construction of the pipeline, and, if it
is completed, to turn it into a "snake of fire."
The New Mon State Party signed a cease-fire with the SLORC in late
June. But there have been a number of violent deaths related to the
pipeline. On March 8, 1995, five Total employees were killed in a KNU
attack near the village of Kanbauk, Burma. The KNU's Fourth Brigade
attacked a surveying crew after issuing a statement condemning the pipeline
project and related human-rights abuses. The rebels were also upset over
recent comments by Unocal president John Imle insinuating that the Karen
and Mon were to blame for increased SLORC repression.
The All BurmaStudents' democratic Front, a rebel group associated
with the Karen and Mon, also maintains a presence in the area.
Meanwhile, the clearing of the forest is clearing up new fields of fire.
Many refugees believe that the forced construction of the "New Death
Railway" is related to the gas pipeline, since it crosses the pipeline's
route, and could be conveniently used to transport materials and soldiers.
The SLORC claims that its forced labor policy is actually a form of
voluntary labor--that it is an old tradition for people to work for "the
good of their villagers."
But the villages are being abandoned, the farms seized without
compensation, and the people are in refugee camps far from their homeland.
Unocal and Total have conceded that the SLORC is using slave labor,
and claim they will not use the railroad because of it.
The companies would not risk the damaging public relations
connected with paying their workers nothing. Minimal wages are a different
matter. Total claims to have 20o employees involved in the surveying
process, all of whom are being paid. But the Tatmadaw takes more than half
of their wages. Total executives are aware of the wage skimming, but say
they can't be held accountable.
"But they are accountable," says faith Doherty of the Southeast
Asian Information Network, "because they are dealing with the SLORC."
Unocal and Total knew in advance whom they would be dealing with in
Burma. Reprecht von Arnim of the United Nations High Commision for the
Refugees in Thailand made a public statement in Spetember 1994 that the
SLORC would most likely use slave labor on any infrastructure projects.
Besides the Ye-Tavoy railway, the military junta has used slave
labor on a number of tourism-related projects in connection with its "Visit
Myanmar '96" promotional effort.
Doherty has been meeting with villagers and rebels in the pipeline
area, exchanging information on Unocal/Total construction plans.
"You can't just look at the issue of corporations using forced
labor or not," she says. "This is an investment issue. They should not be
Many environmentalists and human rights advocates in the United
States agree. The Sierra Club, Greenpeace, the Rainforest Action Network,
and the Bay Area Roundtable have been organizing boycotts against the oil
companies and Pepsico, including its subsidiaries Pizza Hut, Taco Bell,
Frito-Lay, and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The Center for onstitutional Rights has warned Unocal that under
U.S. tort law, the company could be legally liable for any death or
destruction associated with its operation.
This kind of pressure has produced some results. Levi Strauss, Liz
Claiborne, Eddie Bauer, and Amoco have pulled out of Burma, although Amoco
claims its withdrawal was for financial reasons only.
In February 1995 the city council of Berkeley passed a resolution
barring the city from buying goods or services from companies operating in
Burma, and in August, Madison, Wisconsin, followed suit. A statewide ban
has passed the lower house and is currently before the senate in
Massachusetts. Simon Billenness of Franklin Research Development in Boston
says he expects similar "selective purchasing" laws to be introduced in ten
new cities by the end of the year.
Unocal says it has been monitoring the situation and will not
tolerate human-rights violations in any of its project areas. But Unocal's
fact-finding mission consisted of a one-day helicopter tour. So far, the
company has ignored the requests of the KNU to conduct interviews with
refugees who have fled the pipeline area, and Unocal representatives have
not met with Karen or Mon leaders.
Unocal claims to be a "good corporate citizen" and, in a
stockholders' report, CEO Roger Beach says the company conducts all its
"business activities--in any country--ethically and responsibly, or we
don't do business there at all."
Small fires burn around the monastery, increasing the heat of the sun. San
Moe cuts bamboo poles to use as supports for the makeshift building. He
used to be a monk, until he joined the All Burma Students' Democratic Front
and was shot in the femur at the Battle of Sleeping Doh Hill. A scar marks
his thigh at the bullet's point of entry. A tattoe of a demonic ogre
called a Bilu decorates his back.
The thirty families in the camp where San Moe lives have been
forced to move three times since the beginning of 1995, after the All Burma
Students' Democratic Front abandoned the base called Dawn Gwin, north of
Each time the families have attempted to establish a community,
with a school, a hospital, and a monastery, have been told to relocate and
have had to survive with nothing more than plastic sheets for shelter.
The SLORC has recently intensified its military operations against
the rebels here in order to secure the area for timber and hydroelectric
In 1993, the junta discontinued its contracts with Thai loggers,
saying they would be renewed only after the border areas were secured.
Eager to begin logging again, the Thai government has helped the Tatmadaw
to secure the border, initiating a program to keep hill tribes out of
Thailand, removing those who arrived after 1991. The Thais have also
proposed a plan to combine all sixteen Karen refugee camps into two
locations and police them with soldiers.
The Thais have allowed the Tatmadaw to cross the border. In May
1995, the Thai army began raiding Karen border camps to seize weapons and
appease the SLORC. The Thai troops operate with the Joint U.S. Military
Advisory Group, which gives foreign armies counterinsurgency advice.
The Rainforest Action Network estimates that Burma's teak forests
will be eliminated in two or three years. The SLORC, the Thai government,
and U.S. teak importers like Dean Hardwoods and Teak Imports International
stand to profit, and the jungle and its inhabitants face probable
One of the jungle's inhabitants walks along a stream toward a hut
where a wedding is being held. the girls wears a T-shirt that says, "Save
the Salween--Damn the Dams," a reference to the SLORC's plan to build a
hydroelectric dam on the Upper Salween River, reportedly financed by Chase
Manhattan Bank. It is another way to increase the flow of money into
Burma--and the flow of refugees into Thailand, adding to the 80,000 already
After a Buddhist monk performs the wedding, the girl and some of
her teen-aged friends gather around a battery-operated boom box and dance
in their dislocated home in the jungle.
Back in the city, a Burmese student, Ea Nang, looks up fromher
glass of Pepsi. "After the attack on the Total workers in Kanbauk, my
friend had to carry one of the bodies off the plane in Rangoon. The man
killed was married. he had a six-week-old baby."
As long as the corporate war goes on, the bodies will continue to
stack up at the airport in Rangoon.
At the same airport, soldiers climb into a Huey gunship, which
shudders and heads off to put in its eight-hour shift, cutting a swath
through the jungle, tearing through forests, villages, animals, and people,
leaving behind profits and skeletons.
*End text here.