The Burma Backstory: How Fossil Fuels Keep the Junta in Business

Although most of the world’s political powers, including the United States, have condemned the Myanmar junta’s crackdown on reformist protesters, the military regime’s persistent grip on power there has only been strengthened by decades of economic cooperation with the West.

Here’s a roundup of’s coverage of the issue, as well as the latest articles from other regional and international news sources.

In 2002, reporter Jennifer Huang broke ground with an exclusive investigative article on a series of human rights lawsuits filed against international energy corporations working in developing nations with abusive regimes.

The lawsuits — which targeted a number of American oil companies, including California’s UnoCal — were filed in federal court under the Alien Tort Claims Act, an 18th century law that gives U.S. courts jurisdiction over some offenses committed overseas.

Unocal was sued for its partnership with the French oil giant Total in the construction of the Yadana Pipeline, which carries millions of cubic feet of natural gas every day along a 63 kilometers route through Burma’s southern Tenasserim region.

Rich with natural resources and dense rainforest, Tenasserim is also home to ongoing ethnic strife, and the construction of the pipeline brought with it ongoing reports of forced labor, rape and murder of local minorities by government military forces.

In 2004, Unocal settled with plaintiffs — a group of 15 anonymous villagers — out of court, for an undisclosed sum that the Environment News Service describes as “certain to be a multi-million-dollar figure.”

The company was purchased in 2005 by Chevron, itself a target of ATCA lawsuits in Nigeria and elsewhere.

According to the California-based company’s Web site, Chevron continues to work with the Myanmar junta, maintaining exploration, production and marketing operations there.

In 2005, Total settled with eight other plaintiffs in a French court, paying out more than $6 million to create a charitable fund for humanitarian needs in the region and around the pipeline.

Despite this, the Total “categorically” denies its participation in any forced labor program, and, indeed, insists on the website that its presence there helps stimulate the economy, improve living conditions, and provides 20 percent of the nation’s gas needs.

However, a sharp spike in domestic fuel prices is precisely what prompted the current round of large-scale protests there, according to the Associated Press.

Earlier this year, also noted an Inter Press Service report that, despite agreements with the International Labor Organization, forced labor under the junta persists on a mass scale.

Meanwhile, oil and gas development remains the junta’s leading economic wellspring.

Antara News reports that China is the leading partner in a new pipeline project that will net the junta $83 million for additional oil exploration.

Fortune magazine reported in November 2006 that fears of new abuses follow plans for another pipeline that would bring Burmese natural gas to India — earning the junta as much as $17 billion along the way.

According to Agence France-Presse, India’s oil minister visited the Myanmar junta as recently as Sunday, where he inked a $150 million exploration deal.

AFP also notes that Thailand is the major partner in developing a 2.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas off Burma’s southwestern coast.

Other natural resources also bring huge payoffs, including a thriving trade in gems, and a robust timber trade with China, in which 95 percent of all cut trees are smuggled illegally over the boarder.

A 2004 op-ed in the National Review, a conservative U.S. publication, condemned forced labor and human rights abuses by the junta, and focused in particular on the huge refugee problem caused by ongoing ethnic repression by government troops.

But the article makes no mention of the Yadana Pipeline, Unocal, Total, or any other major western or world power’s role in the developing fossil-fuel resources with the junta.

Sources: topic search: Burma

“Trade Bolsters Myanmar Junta”, June 20, 2007

“U.S. Courts Tackle Foreign Abuses / Energy corporations question ‘law of nations'” Exclusive, July 26, 2004

“Energy Giants Sued For Third World Violence / VIII: Myanmar (Burma) — Doe v. Unocal” Exclusive, May 13, 2002

“Unocal Settles Out of Court With Myanmar Villagers”
Environment News Service, December 17, 2004

“Myanmar official defends fuel price hikes that sparked protests”
August 26, 2007

“Human Rights in Myanmar”

“The Pipeline Region and its Inhabitants”

“Why has Total stayed in Myanmar while many other Western companies have left?”

“Myanmar: Total and the Sherpa Association reach agreement for the creation of a solidarity Fund for humanitarian actions”
Total Corp., November 29, 2005

“More gas discovered in impoverished Myanmar: report”
Agence France-Presse, January 2, 2007

“Work on China-Myanmar oil pipeline to start in 2007”
ANTARA News/Asia Pulse, March 23, 2007

“Deal Signed for Myanmar Oil Exploration”
AFX News, March 13, 2007

“In Harm’s Way”
Fortune, November 29, 2006

“India ‘concerned’ over Myanmar”
Agence France-Presse, September 26, 2007

“Saving Burma: A humanitarian crisis in southeast Asia”
The National Review, Sept. 21, 2004

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