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Burmese Sue U.S. Firm (Washingtonpo

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
fellow refugee
                  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
ensure security
                  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
baby, suffering
                  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
Jane Does
                  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.
His secret
                  reporting from inside Burma helped form the basis for the
lawsuit accusing
                  the California-based oil company Unocal and the French
firm Total,
                  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
                  Burmese army. 

                  The lawsuit, one of two such class actions filed in Los
Angeles by different
                  plaintiffs, reflects growing efforts by U.S. activists to
discourage private
                  sector involvement in countries that allegedly violate
labor and civil rights.
                  Massachusetts and at least 23 cities and towns across the
country have
                  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
investment was
                  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
weapons and
                  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
travels inside
                  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
began providing
                  security for the pipeline and that he personally saw Total
officials pay
                  porters during a 1996 trip. 

                  According to plaintiffs, however, the military often
ordered dragooned
                  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
Nat-ein-taung, the
                  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
the offensive,
                  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