Chevron, Total Accused of Human-Rights Abuses in Burma

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Pascale Trouillaud / AFP / Getty Images

An unidentified Total official, left, briefs the media at a metering junction of its natural-gas pipeline in Burma

To the list of Big Oil companies with p.r. problems add two more: Chevron and French energy giant Total. In a report published on Monday, the NGO EarthRights International accuses the firms of being implicated in human-rights violations in Burma, claiming that soldiers guarding Chevron and Total's natural-gas pipeline in the country have murdered locals and forced others to do backbreaking, unpaid labor in order to keep the gas exports flowing smoothly. The report also holds that the revenues from the operation have been propping up the country's oppressive military government for more than a decade, thus fostering harmful political outcomes that affect the entire country.

EarthRights' complaints against Total and Chevron are not new. Last year, the NGO, which is based in Washington and Chiang Mai, Thailand, published interviews with locals describing how soldiers protecting the pipeline had dragooned them into unpaid manual labor. The pipeline, which crosses more than 40 miles of Burmese territory, is a joint venture among Chevron, Total, a Thai energy company and the Burmese state oil and gas authority. Activists say it is a short section of the pipeline that travels overland through a remote part of the country that has led to ongoing conflicts between residents and the Burmese army's Battalion 282, the soldiers charged with protecting the pipeline. Until the pipeline was built in the mid-1990s, the area saw little military action. But according to the EarthRights report, in February some soldiers of the battalion murdered two residents in the pipeline area after suspecting them of being linked to an armed militia group.

The report goes on to say that Total and Chevron's operation — which for more than a decade has been exporting gas to Thailand from Burma's Yadana field — is keeping the country's military government afloat. Last October, Total took the rare step of revealing how much it pays Burma's government for its share of the gas revenues, saying that the previous year, Total's portion of the Yadana project had earned the Burmese government about $254 million. In all, EarthRights says, the operation generated about $9 billion in revenues for Burma and the oil companies between 1998 and the end of 2009, with $4.6 billion of that paid directly to Burmese officials.

But should Total and Chevron be held responsible for the actions of Burma's government? For years, energy companies have argued that they operate in scores of countries across the world — many of them authoritarian — and cannot be accountable for the behavior of each of those governments, especially since their contracts can last up to 25 years, often longer than the governments themselves. Total and Chevron reject EarthRights' claims that their operations in Burma led to human-rights violations, and both companies have invested in community programs, such as health clinics and schools, in the country.

Total spokesman Jean-François Lassalle told TIME on Monday that the company is "deeply shocked" by the accusations in the report, adding that they "rest on a biased interpretation and a vision that is totally disconnected from the Burmese reality. We work daily for the respect of human rights in our operations and beyond our operations for better governance," he said. After EarthRights made similar accusations last year, Total published an interview with Lassalle on its website in which he said, "Total has never used forced labor, either directly or indirectly through contractors. We always insured that forced labor was not used in the area in which we operated." He also said that when the company learned of forced-labor cases involving the Burmese pipeline, "we paid compensation immediately, on humanitarian grounds."

EarthRights says in its report that Chevron and Total could be liable for major legal challenges if Burmese residents choose to sue the companies in their home territories, the U.S. and France, respectively. For Chevron, that would be familiar territory. In 2005, the now defunct Unocal oil company, which Chevron bought that year, paid an undisclosed sum of money to Burmese plaintiffs after fighting a nine-year legal battle in a California court over human-rights abuses around the pipeline.

EarthRights consultant Matthew Smith says Total and Chevron have refused to meet with the group to discuss the situation in the pipeline area and that the Burmese government seems increasingly jittery about the revelations of human-rights abuses by those protecting the gas exports. "There's much more of a concerted effort by security forces to identify people who are documenting what's going on," says Smith, who authored this week's report. Villagers are ordered to report any unusual visitors to the pipeline area. Most of all, perhaps, those writing international reports.