The Washington Post
May 2, 2000, Tuesday, Final Edition
HEADLINE: Unocal ‘Smoking Gun’ Alleged; Burmese Refugees Claim Cable Supports Abuse Charges
BYLINE: William Branigin , Washington Post Staff Writer
Attorneys for a group of Burmese refugees say they have discovered a “smoking gun” document
supporting their claims that a major U.S. oil company should be held accountable for human
rights violations related to construction of a natural gas pipeline in Burma.
The 15 plaintiffs, representing thousands who fled to the Burma-Thailand border in the early
1990s, charge that Unocal Corp. and the French oil firm Total SA, partners in the project with the
Burmese government, were complicit in human rights abuses by Burmese forces. The abuses
allegedly included the forced relocation of entire villages, the use of slave labor, and numerous deaths, beatings, rapes and property seizures. Unocal denies the charges.
A federal judge in Los Angeles will hear arguments May 22 on whether the suits, the first such
effort to hold an American corporation liable for human rights abuses abroad, can proceed to
trial. Attorneys for the refugees say State Department cables obtained under the Freedom of
Information Act contradict the company’s denials. They cite a 1995 State Department cable of an interview with Unocal official Joel Robinson.
“On the general issue of the close working relationship between Total/Unocal and the Burmese
military, Robinson had no apologies to make,” the cable said. “He stated forthrightly that the companies have hired the Burmese to provide security for the project and pay for this through the
Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise,” the Burmese state oil company.
Robinson was quoted as saying that three truckloads of Burmese soldiers typically accompanied
project officials as they conducted survey work and that Burmese military officers were informed of the next day’s activities so that soldiers could secure the area and guard the work perimeter.
“I would call this cable the smoking gun, because it refutes everything they [the defendants] said
about the relationship between Unocal/Total and the military,” asserted Terry Collingsworth, a lawyer representing one group of plaintiffs. He said the existence of a “contractual relationship”
with the Burmese military is also supported by other documents that remain sealed by the court.
A Unocal lawyer, Edwin V. Woodsome Jr., said the cables are “not factually accurate.” He
insisted that “there is no evidence the military was hired by Unocal or Total or anybody else.”
The 416-mile, $ 1.2 billion pipeline starts at Burma’s Yadana offshore gas field in the Andaman
Sea and crosses 39 miles of the Tenasserim region, which traditionally has been inhabited by ethnic minorities including the Karen, who have been fighting for self-rule for more than 50
Construction began in 1992 and was completed in 1998. Limited amounts of gas have flowed
through the pipeline because facilities on the Thai side of the border remain unfinished.
The class-action suits, filed against Unocal and its partners in 1996 by the International Labor
Rights Fund, the Center for Constitutional Rights and other groups, seek more than $ 1 billion in damages from the giant California-based oil company. They are also aimed at setting a precedent
that would deter U.S. firms from doing business with despotic regimes.
In 1997, the Clinton administration prohibited new U.S. private investment in Burma, prompting
some companies to pull out. Among them were Levi Strauss & Co., Eastman Kodak Co. and Hewlett-Packard Co. Levi Strauss acknowledged that its investment had been supporting “one of
the leading violators of human rights in the world.”
In addition, four states and about 30 municipalities, including Takoma Park, have declared some
form of boycott against Burma to punish the military junta that seized power in 1988 and brutally suppressed a democracy movement. A foreign trade group representing 580 corporations,
including Unocal, has challenged a Massachusetts law that penalizes companies with Burmese investments. That case is now before the Supreme Court. In defending itself against the lawsuits,
Unocal has consistently maintained it had nothing to do with alleged human rights violations.
In a deposition last year, John F. Imle Jr., then president of Unocal, said he knew of no
“contractual obligation” for the Burmese armed forces to protect the project. They did so, he said, “in the same way the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department would provide security for activities of
any kind . . . in Los Angeles County.”
Independent human rights groups say the Burmese army routinely rounds up villagers and forces
them to work on construction projects or serve as porters–sometimes, in effect, as “human minesweepers”–for military counterinsurgency operations. “Robinson acknowledged that army
units providing security for the pipeline construction do use civilian porters” but said Unocal and its French partner “cannot control their recruitment process,” the May 1995 cable said. It quoted
the Unocal official as saying Total was responsible for ensuring porters were paid. He “admitted that villagers were not paid” for earlier work, including the arduous clearing of forest on both
sides of an access road along the pipeline route.
U.S. District Judge Richard Paez has dismissed Total and the Burmese government as defendants
in the case. Woodsome said Unocal is confident that its summary judgment motion “will dispose
of this case in its entirety.” According to excerpts from the company’s motion, most of which
remains sealed, the company says U.S. courts have repeatedly ruled that the 13th Amendment prohibition against slavery does not prevent state and federal governments from
compelling citizens to “perform certain civic duties” such as road building. The Burmese villagers’ alleged forced labor consisted of “public works” activities that do not violate U.S. law
and “simply do not amount to ‘slavery’ under any meaningful sense of that term,” the motion argues.
Moreover, it says, Unocal cannot be held liable for the actions of “indirect” subsidiaries. Among
these is Unocal Myanmar Offshore Co., which holds Unocal’s interest in the Yadana gas field.
Besides, Unocal says in a report published on its Web site, Total was responsible for “day-to-day
operations” on the pipeline, “including hiring all labor.” Robinson, who has since retired from
Unocal, gave a sworn deposition last year, before the State Department documents were released.
Thus, he was never asked about the meeting with embassy officials. He declined to talk about the
Unocal attorney Woodsome denied that any villagers were relocated or that any forced labor was
used in the pipeline construction. Collingsworth said most of the “dirty work” of forced
relocations and slave labor was done before the pipe-laying phase. The oil companies’ later
insistence on paying the workers was a charade because soldiers confiscated the money, he
added. Even if some workers were paid, they were still forcibly recruited in the first place, he
argued. He pointed to another U.S. Embassy cable, dated January 1996, that quoted Total
briefing materials as saying local villagers were “hired by the army” and incorporated in “battalions.”
The cable said a Unocal consultant on the scene “claimed that the rate at which these workers run
away has decreased sharply since the start of the project.” Woodsome maintained that villagers in
the area appreciated the employment opportunities the oil companies provided. “People who live
there are delighted this pipeline project was done,” he said.