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Burmese Sue U.S. Firm (Washingtonpo
- Subject: Burmese Sue U.S. Firm (Washingtonpo
- From: moe@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
- Date: Wed, 12 May 1999 20:27:00
Subject: Burmese Sue U.S. Firm (Washingtonpost)
Burmese Sue U.S. Firm
By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 13, 1999; Page A13
As the Burmese woman told her story to Ka Hsaw Wa, a
and member of the Karen ethnic minority, her anger began
to build. It was
1992, and she had been forced to flee her village in
southern Burma as part
of a massive relocation campaign by the Burmese army to
for a natural gas pipeline.
She had been holding her 2-month-old baby while cooking in
front of her
bamboo-and-thatch hut when soldiers ordered her to leave.
One of them
kicked her hard in the ribs, and her baby fell into the
open fire, she told Ka
Hsaw Wa, a former student activist who had fled to the
border earlier. She made her way to the border, but her
from severe burns, died shortly afterward.
Today the woman, known as Jane Doe I, is one of 14
plaintiffs in a
landmark class-action lawsuit that, for the first time,
seeks to hold a private
U.S. corporation accountable for human rights violations
abroad. All the 11
men and three women are referred to in the suit as John or
because they fear retaliation from Burmese forces.
Ka Hsaw Wa collected their stories and those of hundreds
of other victims
of human rights abuses after he was tortured and forced to
flee the capital,
Rangoon, during a crackdown on student protests in 1988.
reporting from inside Burma helped form the basis for the
the California-based oil company Unocal and the French
partners in the pipeline project with the Burmese
government, of complicity
in the forced relocation of entire villages, the use of
slave labor and
numerous related deaths, beatings, rapes and property
The suit was filed by EarthRights International, the
Center for Constitutional
Law in New York and two Los Angeles law firms.
The companies deny any wrongdoing. They say their
partnership is with the
Burmese state oil company, Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise,
and that they
are not responsible for actions by Burmese troops.
Last month in New York, Ka Hsaw Wa was among four
recipients of the
annual Reebok Human Rights Award. "At great risk to his
life," the award
citation said, the 28-year-old exile "traveled thousands
of miles on foot, living
and working clandestinely" to interview victims and
document "the forced
labor, rape and other human rights abuses inflicted on
villagers" by the
The lawsuit, one of two such class actions filed in Los
Angeles by different
plaintiffs, reflects growing efforts by U.S. activists to
sector involvement in countries that allegedly violate
labor and civil rights.
Massachusetts and at least 23 cities and towns across the
passed "selective purchasing" laws that bar the awarding
of state or local
government contracts to companies doing business in Burma.
On a number
of U.S. college campuses, students are demanding an end to
the use of
foreign sweatshop labor in making school-licensed apparel.
A foreign trade group representing 580 corporations,
including Unocal, last
year blocked implementation of the Massachusetts law in
federal court. An
appeal by the state government is scheduled to be heard in
A federal judge in Los Angeles has rejected Unocal's
motion to dismiss the
class-action claims against it, ruling that corporations
can be held legally
responsible in U.S. courts for human rights violations
committed abroad by
state entities acting as their agents. The case is
expected to go to trial early
next year, with the two suits combined into one.
In 1997, the Clinton administration barred new U.S.
private investment in
Burma, accelerating a pullout by companies already there.
Among the first
to leave was Levi Strauss & Co., which concluded that its
supporting a government it called "one of the leading
violators of human
rights in the world."
Construction of the 416-mile, $1.2 billion pipeline began
in 1992 and was
completed last year, but it is not yet operational because
including Ka Hsaw Wa, dissuaded the World Bank from
financing a power
plant in Thailand that was to receive the Burmese natural
gas. The pipeline
starts at the offshore Yadana gas field in the Andaman Sea
and crosses 39
miles of Burma's Tenasserim region, which is inhabited
largely by ethnic
minorities. Among them are the Karens, who have been
fighting against the
central government for self-rule for more than 50 years.
The military junta that has ruled Burma since 1988 began
flooding the area
with troops when construction started, driving villagers
away from the
pipeline route and forcing many into slave labor on
related projects, Ka
Hsaw Wa said. Villagers were forcibly recruited to cut
down trees for
survey roads, build barracks and outposts for troops
guarding the pipeline,
clear land and plant rice to feed the soldiers and carry
ammunition on counterinsurgency missions.
"When they collapsed and couldn't work anymore, the
soldiers just shot
them," Ka Hsaw Wa said in an interview after opening the
office of EarthRights International, a human rights group
he co-founded. He
said he saw numerous bodies of forced laborers during his
Burma and heard accounts of killings from army defectors.
In a deposition in January, John Imle, the president of
Unocal, denied that
"conscript labor" helped build the pipeline, but
acknowledged that "security
forces" used such workers as porters at an early stage of
the project. He
said this changed after he told Gen. Khin Nyunt, one of
the junta leaders,
"that the use of conscript labor even for porterage was
not a policy that was
comfortable for us as an investor in that country." He
said Unocal and Total
"insisted upon these workers being paid" when the military
security for the pipeline and that he personally saw Total
porters during a 1996 trip.
According to plaintiffs, however, the military often
workers to hide in the jungle when foreign company
officials visited, or
confiscated their pay after the foreigners left. One man
said he was forced
to serve as a porter during military offensives to secure
site of a metering station on the Burmese-Thai border,
where the Yadana
natural gas was to be sold by Unocal and Total to a Thai
company. He said
in court documents that many porters were killed during
including two he saw beaten to death by soldiers.
Another plaintiff said he and about 100 other villagers
were forced to clear
a path for the pipeline in 1996 and help build a bridge.
He said he received
the equivalent of less than $12 for 20 days' work and
signed a receipt, but
that an army officer later took the money.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company