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NY Times Editorial
The following editorial ran in the New York Times following a letter
we wrote to the Times in response to an article about the pipeline
which ran on Sunday, December 8, 1996
The full text of the original letter follows the editorial. Obviously,
the Times took much of their information from the letter, arriving
at a similar position.
If you are so inclined, please fax the Times in support of their
position and fill them in on other details as you see fit.
Fax your letter to Kris Wells, Letters to the Editor, fax: 212/556-3622.
I'm sure Unocal will be responding with their own position.
Tim Keating, Rainforest Relief/Burma UN Service Office
DOING BUSINESS IN MYANMAR
New York Times Editorial, Dec. 16, 1996
Politics should not be an issue for international
corporations, says a spokesman for the
California-based energy company Unocal, the single
largest American investor in the
Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar. He was replying
to suggestions that Unocal pull out of Myanmar.
Business executives, as they like to point out,
are not social workers. But at times a government
is so repressive and a company's support of it so
significant that its presence cannot help but be
political. South Africa under apartheid was such a
country. Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is another,
and Unocal should not be doing business there.
For sheer nastiness, few governments can compete with
Myanmar's. It winks at heroin trafficking. It forces
its citizens to provide slave labor to build bridges
and railroads. In 1990 the Government lost elections,
then imprisoned and harassed activists of the victorious
party, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Last week the
Government confined her to her house, detained more of
her colleagues and shut down secondary schools to stop
student protests. She has called for sanctions on her country.
Myanmar, which has hard-currency reserves that can sustain
the country for less than three weeks, is vulnerable.
Hence the importance of Unocal's 28 percent interest in a
pipeline that will pump gas from an off-shore field through
Myanmar to Thailand. The French company Total will build
the pipeline, and the Thai and Myanmar Government energy
companies also have stakes. Texaco and Arco also recently
signed deals to drill nearby.
As of last year, Unocal had paid the Government $6.6
million in signing bonuses. Such fees are normal, but
what is not normal was the bailout Unocal gave Myanmar
in November. The company provided $7 million worth of
fertilizer on credit to be paid back when the pipeline
is running - a small but important lifeline for the Government.
Unocal may also be indirectly making profits from reprehensible
labor practices. The railroad that will transport Government troops
to protect the pipeline was built by thousands of forced laborers.
Human rights groups have charged that the Government relocated
villages around the pipeline and used forced labor to clear the land.
Unocal denies those charges. The government has not yet permitted
an independent investigation.
Unocal is spending $1.6 million to build projects such as schools,
animal-breeding farms and a hospital, and has brought 12 doctors
to the area. These projects are welcome, but their good does not
outweigh the harm of Unocal's support for a government that does
not do them on its own.
Unocal argues that an Asian company would simply pick up its share
of the project if it pulled out. That is plausible, and underscores
the need for the United States to do more to lobby Japan and the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has said it will
But even this does not justify Unocal's continued engagement with
Myanmar's Government. Other American corporations, including
Macy's and a Disney clothing subsidiary, have already pulled out,
responding to publicity and laws approved by Massachusetts and
eight cities that bar contracts with companies doing business in
Myanmar. Congress has passed a law banning new investment if the
crackdown intensifies, but the Clinton Administration has not yet
The $200 million in annual revenues expected to flow to Myanmar's
Government when the pipeline is running will dwarf the benefits
produced by other American investments. The pipeline's importance,
and Unocal's apparent willingness to help sustain the Government,
undercut the argument that constructive engagement can change the
policies of the Burmese leadership. Unocal may make a handsome
profit in Myanmar, but it cannot claim it is bringing change to this
To the Editor:
Your December 8th article about the Total/Unocal/SLORC gas pipeline
through Burma was extremely one-sided in its portrayal of Unocal as
a humanitarian corporate good-guy. This is far from the truth.
Unocal stands to make billions from the pipeline over the ensuing
years. By its very nature, the deal is immersed in politics, contrary
to Unocal's statements.
Unocal is wrong when it says "they are simply oilmen_and should not
be held accountable for the behavior of their host country." It is
this claim, based not on reality, but fantasy, that has attempted to
cover the stink of corporations while they wipe out lives, cultures
and the environment in other, less industrialized countries. At
this very moment weapons purchased with money from US investments
are being used to squash pro-democracy demonstrators.
Missing from your report were any comments by those opposed to the
project. The National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma
(NCGUB) is made up of elected representatives of the 1990 general
elections, democratically chosen by the people of Burma. After the
National League for Democracy, led by Aung SanSuu Kyi, won more
than 82% of the seats in Parliament, the State Law and Order
Restoration Council (SLORC) refused to yield power.
The SLORC uses forced labor, torture and rape to get what it wants,
kills dissenters at will and has created a country where the citizens
are in constant fear. Opposition brings quick reprisal. The only
reason Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is still alive is that she has become
an international figure. Others who have opposed the SLORC are not
Because of Unocal's refusal to abide by the demands of the elected
government, the SLORC stands to reap billions from its part in the
pipeline deal. None of this income will help the people of Burma,
since the SLORC spends almost half of its budget on weapons, while
spending less than 20% on social programs. The government is at war
with no one except its own people.
Unocal is also not being responsible to its shareholders, since any
contracts made during the reign of the illegitimate military government
will need to be reviewed by the democratic government when it regains
control. Since the social and environmental impacts of the pipeline
are enormous, it is likely that the project will not continue in its
current form. The pipeline has already had a devastating impact on
Burma's rainforests, and future impacts on marine life are certain.
Unocal is being loose with its shareholders' money.
SLORC-guided tours for journalists do not include visits with any
opposed to the project, such as those forced into labor for roads
and other infrastructure and those who were forcefully relocated
and/or fled to Thailand as refugees. Showpieces such as a few
schoolhouses are far outweighed by the impact the pipeline will have
on the countryside and its people, and are crumbs compared to the
billions Unocal stands to make.
Big international corporations are immersed in politics, whether they
would like us to think so or not. Simply claiming that "politics
should not be an issue" for them does not make the truth go away.
Unocal is funding the SLORC. They are involved in politics.
Unocal has chosen to deal with thugs and hide behind false statements
The people of Burma who elected Aung San Suu Kyi's party to lead the
country know better. The democratically-elected Prime Minister has
called for companies to cease investments in Burma until democracy
is restored. If Unocal was truly apolitical, it would abide by the
wishes of the Burmese people and do just that.
Dr. Thaung Htun, Representative for UN Affairs
National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma