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Pipeline to Justice?

A U.S. appeals court offers hope to Myanmar farmers who accuse Unocal of complicity in human rights abuses.

June 15, 2003|Lisa Girion | Times Staff Writer


THAILAND, NEAR THE MYANMAR BORDER -- Carrying her gravely injured infant daughter, a woman emerged from the jungle and struggled to make her way to a refugee camp, where she told of their harrowing exodus from Myanmar.

They had been assaulted by soldiers searching for her husband after his escape from a crew of forced laborers. Unable to find him, the soldiers lashed out at her. An officer berated her, beat her and kicked her so hard that she and the newborn she was nursing fell into a cooking fire.

"My baby wasn't even crying anymore, she was so badly burned on her head," the woman said, recalling how she cradled the girl, just a month old, as she searched for help.

The woman blames the "project of the white people" for her misery. Her husband was among hundreds of villagers forced to work for Myanmar's Tatmawdaw, the People's Army. The army had been assigned to guard a $1.2-billion natural gas pipeline built by Unocal Corp. and a French partner through the wooded flatlands and mountain rain forests of the Tenasserim region.

Nine years later, the woman, identified in court documents only as Jane Doe 1, waits to be called as a witness in lawsuits accusing the El Segundo-based company of complicity in human rights abuses -- including forced labor, murder and rape -- allegedly committed by Tatmawdaw soldiers in the country formerly known as Burma.

If Jane Doe 1 and 14 other plaintiffs succeed in forcing Unocal to defend itself in a courtroom thousands of miles from the scene of the alleged crimes, they will make history.

More than two dozen suits have been filed in U.S. courts over the last decade against U.S. corporations -- including Exxon Mobil Corp., Ford Motor Co. and IBM Corp. -- for alleged human rights abuses in countries from Colombia to South Africa. None has been tried.

Should the Unocal case be the first, a Los Angeles jury will face questions moral as well as legal: Can a corporation be held liable for human rights violations by a foreign government that is a business partner? How much of a hand in the abuses must the company have had to be found responsible? What if it simply turned a blind eye?

Lawyers for Unocal acknowledge that the soldiers swept the jungle, dragooning men and women to work as porters. But the lawyers say no forced labor was used on any aspect of the pipeline project and no one at Unocal could control the military. They also say the company had no knowledge of the violent acts that soldiers are alleged to have committed.

This week, at a hearing in San Francisco before 11 judges on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Unocal will argue against a ruling made last year by a three-judge panel, which found there was sufficient evidence for the company to stand trial. The majority opinion said there was reason to believe that Unocal "gave assistance and encouragement to the Myanmar Military."

Unocal, the judges said, was no different from the German armaments firm Krupp, which was tried for war crimes at Nuremberg after World War II: Unocal "resembles the defendants in Krupp, who well knew that any expansion of their business could require the employment of forced labor."

Unocal sees it differently. "The military has a general obligation in every country to maintain authority," said Charles Strathman, the company's chief legal officer. "That's not the same as hiring the military. 7-Eleven investors aren't liable for what police do when they are called to a store."


The pipeline emerges from the warm waters of the Gulf of Martaban in the Andaman Sea at the fishing village of Daminseik, a smattering of weathered wooden and bamboo huts sandwiched between the shore and a strip of rice paddies plied by water buffalo. On a nearby hilltop, a Buddhist temple stands watch over this spot on the west coast of Myanmar's remote southern panhandle.

Baptist missionaries came here in the 19th century to convert the ethnic Karen and Mon from Buddhism, inspiring the construction of a few churches amid the ubiquitous golden stupas. But until the pipeline, the landscape of the Tenasserim hadn't much changed.

Jane Doe 1's life had been as constant, she recalled, until the day in May 1992 when soldiers appeared in her remote village. It was in the path of one of the pipeline routes under consideration by the government, and the soldiers ordered the villagers to move to a relocation camp far from their home.

"Until the pipeline came, we were free," she said. "Burmese soldiers were fairy tales. We never saw them. But they came with the pipeline."

Jane Doe 1 and other plaintiffs, living in hiding under a court-ordered cloak of anonymity, told their stories from safe houses here. The interviews were supplemented with court documents and declassified diplomatic cables. The plaintiffs' lawyers asked that the men and women not be identified by The Times for fear of retribution.

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