From Sat Apr 27 10:30:06 2002
Date: Fri, 26 Apr 2002 09:35:29 -0500 (CDT)
From: “Mark Graffis” <>
Subject: Gunboat petroleum: Burmas Unocal/Total pipeline
Article: 137356
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

Gunboat petroleum: Burmas Unocal/Total pipeline

By Edith T. Mirante, Environmental News Network, Friday 26 April 2002

Edith T. Mirante is author of Burmese Looking Glass (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1993) and director of Project Maje, an information project on Burma's human rights and environmental issues. She has conducted research in remote areas of Burma's war zone. In 1988 she was the first foreigner in decades to walk across the Tenasserim region of southern Burma, the area which has become the gas pipeline route. Mirante has testified about these issues before the U.S. Congress and the European Trade Commission.

Tiny bats and huge wild elephants lived in the way of Unocal's Burma-Thailand pipeline. But that didn’t stop the California multinational with a ruthless reputation from forging ahead.

Colombia is in the news for a U.S.-backed military campaign to secure petroleum pipelines. On the other side of the globe, the case of Unocal and Total in Burma shows just how wrong such militarized pipeline projects can go, running counter to environmental protection and the safety of indigenous people.

Burma (which its ruling regime calls Myanmar) is the largest nation in mainland Southeast Asia. Burma's army seized power from a democratic government in 1962 and has gripped it ever since, suppressing a people's uprising in 1988 and denying office to the party of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the landslide victor in the 1990 elections.

Burma's forests, rich in teak and other valuable hardwoods, had survived until recently thanks to the Burma Selection System in which indigenous people and then the British logged carefully and replanted in a disciplined way.

The military regime discarded that system and clear-cut central Burma in the 1970s and ‘80s. Then after the 1988 uprising, the junta granted logging concessions on its eastern frontier to neighboring Thailand—whose rapacious logging had destroyed its own forests—and fought “teak wars” with ethnic rebels for control of the border forests. In a couple of years Burma went from the world's seventh highest rate of deforestation to the third highest.

More recently, Chinese and Malaysian logging companies have turned much of northern Burma into a clear-cut zone. Hard currency from the sale of hardwood timber mostly goes toward the purchase of weaponry from China and Russia, including MiG fighter bombers. Russia is planning to set up a nuclear reactor in Burma as well.

Another result of the economic openness of the present junta, which controls the economy from rice to heroin, has been the sale of petroleum exploration concessions to foreign firms. The most lucrative petro-blocks have turned out to be offshore, where natural gas reserves were found beneath the Andaman Sea. The regime's gunboats drove local fishing folk, including the Salon “Sea Gypsies” from the vicinity.

Unocal from Los Angeles and Total of France hatched a scheme to build a pipeline across southern Burma, homeland of rebellious ethnic groups including the Mons and Karens. The intent was to pipe the gas to Thailand for electricity generation, even though Thailand already had a gas glut and didn’t really need it. Halliburton (with Dick Cheney as CEO) provided construction expertise and helped Unocal to lobby against sanctions on Burma's regime. Premier Oil from England followed suit with a parallel pipeline.

The collateral damage—indigenous people killed, raped, tortured, and enslaved by Burma army pipeline security forces—is ongoing. Currently there is talk of building a new pipeline across western Burma to India as well.

The majority of the Unocal/Total pipeline route lies undersea, but on land it cuts across the Tenasserim region of southern Burma, which contained a treasury of the last primary tropical rainforest on mainland Asia. The area has been recognized as a globally significant eco-region and a biodiversity hot spot.

Ethnic rebellion had kept resource exploitation limited, and the Karens had maintained their own wildlife sanctuary on their sacred mountain, Kaser Doh. The indigenous civilians were deeply connected with the rainforest. As one villager put it, “Mostly our Karen people like to stay on our own lands or in the peaceful living conditions of the jungle.”

The pipeline, 700 kilometers (435 miles) long, was completed in 1999 despite protests from international human rights and environmental groups. The companies buried the on-land segment, paved an access road along it, and built a security corridor around it. The pipeline is guarded by several battalions of troops.

Surrounding woodland was logged and cleared by forced labor, and security forces killed wild animals, including rhinoceros and elephants. Forest dwellers were compelled to resettle in security zones, where Unocal and Total set up development projects such as shrimp farming and pig husbandry, which have their own negative impacts on the environment.

When the pipeline crossed over into Thailand, it sliced across a national park and forest reserve, which was the only habitat of the world's smallest mammal, Kitti's hog-nosed bat, as well as one of the remaining wild elephant habitats in Thailand. Thai environmentalist Bhinand Jotiroseranee said that the corporations involved “are accountable for this environmental destruction and are showing disrespect to local people who have cherished elephants for centuries.”

Thai activists protested desperately along the pipeline route—to no avail. The once-lush forest along the route suffered die-off, and Thailand was forced to pay Burma's junta for unwanted gas.

The Unocal/Total pipeline project has secured the Tenasserim for commercial exploitation. Logging is now unchecked in the region, and a massive road-building project is underway. Plantations were established, where Karen and Mon people are forced at gunpoint to produce food for the regime's army that occupies their land.

Unocal and Total are no strangers to controversy. Unocal is notorious for pollution in California and on Lubicon Cree land in Canada as well as for its support of the Taliban's rise to power in Afghanistan. Total, now Total-Fina-Elf, earned criticism for the Erika oil spill off the French coast and its deals with dictators worldwide.

Unocal sold off its Union 76 gas stations following a boycott, so activists have pursued other means to pressure the company to leave Burma and hold it accountable for crimes committed in its name. These efforts build on investigations conducted by 1999 Goldman Environmental Award winner Ka Hsaw Wa, a Karen exile who founded EarthRights International.

An attempt was made to revoke Unocal's corporate charter in California. Lawsuits on behalf of civilians harmed by the Burma pipeline security campaign are proceeding in U.S. courts. Shareholder actions, such as resolutions and demonstrations at Unocal's annual meetings, have been supported by trade unions, religous groups, and institutional investors. Robert Wages, president of the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine, and General Workers Union, called the Unocal/Total pipeline “ecologically, socially, and financially unsound.”

Other efforts focus on helping the indigenous people of the pipeline region to survive and trying to salvage what remains of their forests. The Burma Humanitarian Mission has begun a project to assist and encourage the Karen people's use of traditional botanical medicines. In a land gripped by despair, such programs offer some hope for the future.