Copyrighted material

Burma Refugees Suing U.S. Oil Corp

by Rick Mercier

Firms were partly responsible for human rights abuses against Karens
(PNS) -- Theirs is the longest-running insurgency in Asia They fight a regime widely recognized as one of the world's most brutal.

The Karen National Union (KNU) took up arms against the Burmese government in 1949 to secure an autonomous state for the country's Karen ethnic minority. Yet it has failed to generate much attention beyond Burma's borders.

That may change. On May 22, a federal judge in Los Angeles will hear arguments in a lawsuit brought by 15 plaintiffs representing thousands of Karen refugees against Unocal Corporation. They charge the firm with human rights abuses. Unocal denies the allegations. This is the first suit naming a U.S. corporation as a human rights violator, and the judge must decide whether it will go to trial.

KNU Secretary-General Mahn Sha Lah Phan says the KNU needs international help to resolve its conflict with the military junta in Rangoon, Burma's capital.

In an interview in this town on the Thai border, he said intense international pressure could force the junta to talk with the KNU. "If there is concerted pressure from the international community as well as domestic pressure, there is the probability that they would accept dialogue."

By "pressure" he means tough trade sanctions as well as a strict arms embargo.

Mahn Sha called on international non-governmental organizations to "single out countries like Japan" that offer economic assistance to Burma "and denounce them."

Japan has pursued a policy of "constructive engagement" with Rangoon. But Tay Tay, secretary of the Karen Refugee Committee (KRC), said "constructive engagement will mean giving money, and any money that goes into Burma will go into the hands of the military."

Mahn Sha explained the basis of the Los Angeles suit. Western oil firms, partners in a natural gas pipeline meant to supply Thailand, were partly responsible for human rights abuses against Karens.

The $200 million pipeline runs through Karen homelands. During its construction in the early 1990s, Mahn Sha said, numerous Karen villages were forcibly relocated, and Karen were conscripted to work on the project.

He said the three major foreign investors in the pipeline -- the United States' Unocal, France's TotalFinaElf and Britain's Premier -- cooperated with the military which committed violations of human rights including forced labor, executions, rape and arbitrary arrests.

By some estimates, more than 30,000 Karen civilians have died
British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook condemned Rangoon's treatment of Karens last month during a visit to a refugee camp in Thailand. "I have heard enough and seen enough to know that the people here only came here because they were fleeing from brutality, from military action," he said.

The British government urged Premier to withdraw from Burma, but the firm has said it has no intentions of pulling out.

Mahn Sha said the Burmese were practicing "ethnic cleansing" against the Karens, and compared the situation in Burma to Bosnia.

The Burmese government has reached cease-fire agreements with all of the country's other ethnic insurgencies in recent years, but the KNU finds fault with these deals. "They have reached cease-fire agreements, but they are still no nearer to any negotiated settlement of problems," Mahn Sha said.

The KNU started dialogue with the ruling State Council earlier this year, but fresh fighting last month sent thousands of Karen civilians fleeing into Thailand and led the KNU to break off talks.

The Karen insurgents envisage a Karen state with its own legislature and governor, its own system of taxation and control over natural resources.

By some estimates, more than 30,000 Karen civilians have died as a result of Burmese military actions in the past decade. Some 90,000 Burmese Karens have taken refuge in Thailand, another 300,000 remain internally displaced. There are some 7 million Karen in Burma, which has a population of about 44 million.

KNU forces have decreased markedly since 1995, when its headquarters was overrun by Burmese troops. Mahn Sha said rebel troops now number about 10,000 and but still control key stretches along the Thai-Burmese border.

Mahn Sha is convinced Burma's rulers " have a policy to destroy the Karen as a people." The KNU would not accept Rangoon's demand that the insurgents renounce armed resistance as a precondition for any peace agreement. Rather, the junta leaders "are the ones who have to renounce armed force."

Harshly repressive military governments dominated by members of the majority Burman ethnic group have held power in Burma since 1962. A junta has ruled by decree since 1988, when the military brutally crushed huge pro-democracy demonstrations.

PNS correspondent Rick Mercier is a freelance journalist based in Taipei

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor May 22, 2000 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.