Unocal’s pipeline dream

Pact with oppressive regime draws unwanted spotlight

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Last February, when Unocal of Los Angeles and France’s Total inked a $1 billion contract with the dictatorship of Burma to build a 250-mile gas pipeline to Thailand, they must have figured they could weather any public relations storm.

They knew the country’s creepily named State Law and Order Restoration Council had a brutal record. The U.S. State Department has reported that the SLORC “forced hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of ordinary Burmese…to ‘contribute’ their labor, often under harsh working conditions, to construction projects.”

But the oil giants were also aware that press coverage of Burma had been scant. Who’d notice a little business deal? Still, when the SLORC began clearing a path for the pipeline, allegations immediately surfaced from human rights watchers that the SLORC’s workforce actually comprised slave labor pulled from nearby fields.

In May, a small but vocal group of Unocal stockholders protested the pipeline deal, unsuccessfully urging the company to follow other U.S. corporations (Eddie Bauer, Levi Strauss) and pull out of Burma. Then in July, the SLORC ended the six-year imprisonment of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, following intense international pressure. (The leader of Burma’s democracy movement, she supports trade sanctions against the junta.) A month later, director John Boorman’s Beyond Rangoon introduced Burma’s fledgling democracy movement to a worldwide audience.

And while Unocal and Total claim they have no knowledge of slave labor being used on the construction project, the location of the pipeline offers a troubling omen. It was just kilometers away, after all, that Japan maintained the brutal POW camps immortalized in yet another film, The Bridge on the River Kwai.

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THE TRUTH...

is the first thing despots go after. An unwavering commitment to it is probably what draws you to Mother Jones' journalism. And as we're seeing in the US and the world around, authoritarians seek to poison the discourse and the way we relate to each other because they can't stand people coming together around a shared sense of the truth—it's a huge threat to them.

Which is also a pretty great way to describe Mother Jones' mission: People coming together around the truth to hold power accountable.

And right now, we need to raise about $400,000 from our online readers over the next two months to hit our annual goal and make good on that mission. Read more about the information war we find ourselves in and how people-powered, independent reporting can and must rise to the challenge—and please support our team's truth-telling journalism with a donation if you can right now.

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