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Date: Tue, 26 Aug 97 15:00:57 CDT
Subject: Burma: Escapees tell of pipeline's slave labour

Escapees tell of pipeline's slave labour

By William Barnes, South China Morning Post, 21 August 1997

Two Burmese villagers have been smuggled into Thailand to tell the world how forced labour on a controversial US-backed gas pipeline destroyed their lives.

Their evidence is part of a unique legal bid to prevent Western companies from denying responsibility for the actions of foreign partners.

One of the men said that "a foreigner" he exchanged greetings with while working on the pipeline must have known he was being forced to carry "huge, huge loads" for the Army.

American lawyers representing ethnic Karen, Mon and other Burmese villagers in the southern region are hoping that the pair, who cannot be identified, will help to persuade a Los Angeles judge that urgent action is needed.

The judge might then use a preliminary injunction to order the American partner in the project, Unocal Corporation, to suspend its participation before the full human rights case comes to court. The two witnesses said they were abducted from their homes to endure long weeks of forced toil for the brutal Burmese Army guarding the US$1.2 billion (HK$9.3 billion) project, designed to deliver vital hard currency to the military junta in Rangoon.

Both men rejected the claims of the French Total group and Unocal that the scheme benefits the region.

"The people in my village voted for democracy [in the 1990 general election]. They did not vote for portering and forced labour," said one of the men, who used to grow cashew nuts.

The other escapee, a Karen, was a rubber planter.

They are two of 15 plaintiffs who are suing Unocal, Total and two named Unocal executives for their links to gross human rights abuses - beatings, forced labour, murder and relocation - associated with the pipeline.

Their lawyers claimed a huge success in March when a Los Angeles court made legal history by declaring that private companies could he held responsible for the actions of their foreign partners - in this case Burma's military dictatorship.

Previously, only governments and officials could be held liable. The case has now gone into discovery, a process of information exchange between the two sides that could take years. So the plaintiffs are attempting to take out a preliminary injunction against Unocal. They hope to persuade a judge that the human rights abuses are so bad that the court must take action quickly rather than wait for the outcome of the full court case.

One of the plaintiffs is a baby who died after her mother refused to be driven out of her house on the pipeline route. Burmese soldiers attacked the baby who died of her injuries two months later. Her parents are suing on her behalf.

Unocal and Total vigorously deny any involvement in human rights abuses, claiming that economic development can only benefit the Burmese.