By Richard Horsey
French and US oil companies face allegations that slave labour is being used on a massive scale to build a gas pipeline from Burma to Thailand. The project is a joint venture between French company Total, US company Unocal and the Burmese military junta.
A group of refugees who recently arrived on the Thai border claim they were used as slaves to clear a route for the pipeline, but managed to escape. Their claims have been corroborated by reports from anti-government rebel groups in the area, which have threatened to destroy the pipeline.
Several thousand slaves are thought to be involved in clearing and construction work along the 65- kilometre route.
"They took my field for the pipeline", said Kyaw Myint, one of the refugees. "They took my income. Before the pipeline, there was forced labour, but it was possible to live. Now it [forced labour] is all the time."
Representatives of the oil companies involved have refused to comment on human rights abuses connected to the pipeline. J.M. Beuque, from Total, said in reply to the allegations at the contract-signing ceremony in February: "This is not the time to talk politics, this is the time to celebrate". The contract will be worth nearly US$500 million annually.
In a statement released in Bangkok after the contract had been signed, a Unocal representative stated that if there were any more threats against the pipeline, "There will be more forced labour ... more forced relocations [of ethnic minority villages near the pipeline route]".
Following reports such as these, and several brutal attacks by the Burmese military on Karen refugee camps in Thailand, two municipal authorities in the US have introduced legislation against products from companies doing business in Burma. These companies include Unocal, Total and PepsiCo (and its subsidiaries such as KFC).
The British House of Lords recently voted against trade sanctions on Burma, saying it supported the European Union policy of "critical dialogue" with the junta. The US Senate is expected to vote on a similar bill in the next few weeks.
It will be interesting to see if the country that claims to be a bastion of human rights, and is proud of its history in stopping slavery, will vote in favour of the slaves or the multinationals who use them.