Chevron is one of the largest foreign investors in Burma and is the only remaining major U.S. corporation with a significant presence there. In 2005, Chevron bought the company Unocal weeks after the latter settled a lawsuit accusing it of assisting the Burmese military junta in the torture, murder and rape of villagers during construction of a pipeline. We play excerpts of the documentary Total Denial and speak to Katherine Redford, one of the attorneys who brought the suit. [includes rush transcript]
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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As the United Nations Security Council condemns the Burmese military junta, calls are increasing for foreign multinational companies to stop working with the Burmese military government. In the United States, much of the criticism has been focused on the California-based oil company Chevron. Chevron is one of the largest foreign investors in Burma and is the only remaining U.S. corporation with a significant presence there. Chevron is partners with the French oil company Total in operating a natural gas pipeline from Burma to Thailand. Chevron became involved in the project in 2005 when it bought the oil company Unocal, which helped to build the pipeline. Eleven years ago, the group EarthRights International sued Unocal on behalf of 15 Burmese villagers. The lawsuit accused Unocal of assisting the Burmese military junta in torture, murder and rape of villagers during construction of the pipeline. Unocal settled the lawsuit out of court. Weeks later, Chevron bought Unocal.
AMY GOODMAN: Chevron has been allowed to continue to operate in Burma despite U.S. sanctions. This is because of a loophole that exists for companies grandfathered in. Unocal’s exemption from the Burma sanctions was passed onto its new owner, Chevron.
In a moment, we’ll be joined by Katie Redford, one of the attorneys who brought the suit against Unocal. But first, I want to turn to excerpts of a documentary about the lawsuit. It’s called Total Denial. The film features interviews with some of the Burmese villagers who sued Unocal.
BURMESE VILLAGER: 'Til the pipeline came, there were no soldiers in the area where I lived. In our village, we were planting rice. When the pipeline arrived, we had to work for the white people more and more. The soldiers were forcing us to be slaves. If we refused to work, they said they would kill us. Because of the white people, our village was destroyed and we had to flee. They shot at my husband, and he ran away in the jungle. I waited for him with my children. A soldier hit me with his gun. I fell and hit my head on a stone and lost consciousness. When I woke up, I saw my baby in the fire. She couldn't even cry. Her body was so burned and all black.
BURMESE VILLAGER: In 1992, the soldiers came and ordered us to relocate our village. They said if we do not obey the order, they could kill us. I was shot and didn’t know how deep the bullet had gone. There was lots of blood, and it was close to the heart. I didn’t know whether I would live or die.
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the film Total Denial. Unocal officials denied the charges and accused the Burmese villagers of fabricating stories.
UNOCAL OFFICIAL: We believe the claims are fabricated against the company that involve claims of sexual assault, for example, this tragic story about the baby who was burned and then later died. We don’t know whether those things happened or not, but what we do know is that they did not have anything to do with this pipeline project, because we have documents, including newspaper articles, where these folks were interviewed, and they themselves said it had to do with the railroad.
This is simply a case of political advocates trying to generate publicity for their cause, a political cause. They don’t want American companies doing business in Burma. They filed this lawsuit to generate publicity for their cause. And at the end of the day, they will be completely unable to prove up these charges, and some of them are not only false, but some of them are fabricated against the company.
AMY GOODMAN: When the lawsuit went to trial, attorneys for the Burmese villagers argued Unocal should be held accountable.
PAUL HOFFMAN, Counsel for Plaintiffs: They were part of an ongoing venture, which had a legitimate aim, in the sense of building a pipeline. We don’t claim that building a pipeline is an illegitimate aim. But part and parcel of building that pipeline was the fact that the military was going to commit human rights violations in order to do this. And we don’t say that Unocal would be responsible or other companies would be responsible for doing business in Burma or anyplace else, per se; what we’re saying in this case is that Unocal and Total entered into an agreement with this government to do a particular project, that that project included giving to the military the responsibility to do security, which it could have given to private companies.
AMY GOODMAN: Unocal claimed the Burmese military junta was not involved in protecting the pipeline, but the claim was not well received by the court.
JERROLD J. GANZFRIED, Counsel to Unocal: The contract relating to the pipeline has no such provision for security to be provided by MOGE or by the Myanmar military.
JUDGE A. WALLACE TASHIMA: How did it come about then? I’m just curious, as a matter of fact, that the SLORC did provide security for the pipeline itself, right?
JERROLD J. GANZFRIED: The pipeline —
JUDGE A. WALLACE TASHIMA: That’s not disputed.
JERROLD J. GANZFRIED: The pipeline — well, with respect to the pipeline itself, the construction of the pipeline, there is no evidence of any forced labor, any conscripted labor. The claims relate to areas either in the vicinity or not so close to the vicinity of the pipeline.
JUDGE A. WALLACE TASHIMA: What do you mean? Like, for instance, like the helipads are not part of the pipeline?
JERROLD J. GANZFRIED: I believe that’s correct.
JUDGE A. WALLACE TASHIMA: What are they for?
JERROLD J. GANZFRIED: Well, let me take a step back and provide the court with some background in the record of the case.
JUDGE A. WALLACE TASHIMA: Well, tell me first what the helipads are for.
JERROLD J. GANZFRIED: For landing helicopters.
JUDGE A. WALLACE TASHIMA: To construct the pipeline. To help construct the pipeline.
JERROLD J. GANZFRIED: Well, for any other — as Judge Lew mentioned in his opinion, they were there for any purpose that the government wanted to use them.
JUDGE A. WALLACE TASHIMA: I know, but why would you build a helipad, you know, in a remote location right next to the pipeline right away?
JERROLD J. GANZFRIED: Well, the location —
JUDGE A. WALLACE TASHIMA: Getting back to your statement, there’s no evidence that SLARC provided security for the pipeline, if they provided security for the helipad, you can infer they provided security for the pipeline. And my question is, why did they do that if they weren’t obligated to do it under, as you say, under the contract?
JERROLD J. GANZFRIED: Well, I don’t have the answer to —- as to -—
JUDGE A. WALLACE TASHIMA: You don’t know how that came about? Nothing in the record to show why the SLARC provided security for the pipeline?
AMY GOODMAN: California judge questioning the Unocal lawyer, from excerpts from the documentary Total Denial by Milena Kaneva. It’s opening here in New York on October 26 at Cinema Village. For more information, you can go to the website totaldenialfilm.com. In a moment we’ll be joined by Katie Redford, co-founder and co-director of EarthRights International. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Katie Redford, joining us now in Washington, D.C., co-founder and co-director of EarthRights International. She founded the group with her husband, the Burmese human rights activist Ka Hsaw Wa.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Katie. Talk about the situation right now in Burma and how Chevron, the U.S. oil company — what its relationship is with the Burmese military dictatorship.
KATHERINE REDFORD: Hi. Thank you. The situation in Burma right now is extremely tense. People who are living in Burma and living under the rule of this terrible, brutal military dictatorship are suffering, as they have been for the past 20 years, from brutal human rights abuses, which have been only exacerbated over the past couple of weeks in response to the very brave protests and demonstrations led nonviolently by Burmese monks and other civilians in Burma making simple demands for peace, democracy and human rights. So what we’ve seen in the media has been really par for the course for the majority of the people of Burma, who live under this regime every single day.
Now, Chevron and many other corporations in the world are complicit in these abuses, because they are in a business relationship. These soldiers, these thugs, this junta that we saw shooting protesters are Chevron’s business partners. This is the government or the regime that they do business with, that they have signed deals with. And all of the corporations who are in Burma or thinking about being in Burma need to know that, that they are in partnership with this brutal regime.
AMY GOODMAN: We invited Chevron to join us on the program; they declined, but they did send a statement to Democracy Now!. In it, the company said, quote, "Chevron supports the calls for a peaceful resolution to the current situation in Myanmar in a way that respects the human rights of the people of Myanmar. Chevron’s minority, non-operated interest in the Yadana Project is a long term commitment that will help meet the critical energy needs of millions of people in the region. Our community development programs also help improve the lives of the people they touch and thereby communicate our values, including respect for human rights." Your response, Katie Redford?
KATHERINE REDFORD: I have a lot of responses to that statement. First of all, if your corporate values include a respect for human rights, you do not hire one of the most abusive militaries in the world to provide security for your project. And that’s exactly what has happened on the ground in the region of this pipeline that was Unocal’s and now belongs to Chevron. The Burmese military today, as we speak, are providing security for Chevron’s project in Burma. So Chevron’s rhetoric about values and human rights do not play out on the ground for the people who are living in their pipeline region and who are living with Chevron’s security guards, the Burmese military, in their villages, in their homes, doing forced labor for them and committing human rights abuses on Chevron’s behalf.
With regard to the broader context of this statement and Chevron’s support for peaceful resolution, this is a company that pours millions of dollars into the military coffers of the Burmese military junta, and they should wield some more influence than making a general statement supporting peace. If they help by being present in Burma, as they say they do, then now is the time to put their money where their mouth is and stand up and get in the room with their business partners and do a little more than generally calling for a peaceful resolution. They say their presence helps, not hurts. They need to stand up now, when lives are on the line, and do more than issue a general statement.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Katie, your precedent-setting lawsuit against Unocal has emerged in a victory for your clients, but has it effected any substantive change in the policies of Chevron now, in terms of how it’s dealing in Burma?
KATHERINE REDFORD: Well, Chevron, as you mentioned earlier, acquired Unocal following the settlement of this case. And so, Chevron was bound by the provisions of the settlement, which included changes to the human rights situation on the ground and included training for their staff on human rights. So that definitely has had an impact. However, the fact remains that Chevron still uses the Burmese military as their security guards for this pipeline. So, fundamentally, that has not changed, and Chevron is still partners with this military and therefore complicit in any human rights abuses that the military carries out on its behalf.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about Condoleezza Rice. She has made strong statements on Burma, as has President Bush, who announced increased sanctions on Burma at the U.N. General Assembly speech. Condoleezza Rice at ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, said the United States is determined to keep an international focus on the travesty that is taking place. But she, while putting pressure on China, can certainly go closer to home. She was on the board of Chevron for more than a decade during the 1990s, actually had a Chevron oil tanker named after her, The Condoleezza Rice. What has been her role here? And is there any documentation of her pressuring Chevron right now?
KATHERINE REDFORD: I have no information about anything regarding her pressuring or not of Chevron Corporation regarding Burma. But I do believe that any mention of sanctions and any efforts for sanctions must include the ASEAN countries and must include China. The sanctions that have come out of this country have been very strong. We have some of the strongest sanctions on Burma that we have on any country in the world right now, but without multilateral sanctions it’s really going to be difficult to bring down this regime in Burma, which is holding on with all its might. And so, we believe that really no corporation should be in Burma right now. There should be no investment from any country, including the United States, and that really needs to remain the focus.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And for our listeners and viewers who are not familiar with the history, why is Chevron still there?
KATHERINE REDFORD: Well, the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act, in which the United States imposed sanctions on the Burmese regime and created a ban on investment into Burma, excluded from that all existing investment and corporate operations at the time of the sanctions. So Unocal at the time was grandfathered in. Any company that was there at the time of the sanctions was allowed to stay. And then, when Chevron acquired Unocal, they acquired the benefit of that grandfather clause.
AMY GOODMAN: So, under President Clinton and Vice President Gore, they grandfathered the California company in, they grandfathered in Unocal, and then it was bought by Chevron, and they stayed?
KATHERINE REDFORD: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: Right before that law, in December of 1996, I had a chance to interview Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese pro-democracy leader. She had just been put under house arrest, and I asked her about Unocal’s role in Burma.
AUNG SAN SUU KYI: Well, Unocal is one of those companies which are not interested in justice or freedom or human rights. They are just interested in making a profit where they think they can do so. And I do not think there is any justification for Unocal supporting a military regime just because it thinks that it can make good profits. What we are suffering from in Burma is not lack of investment. What we are suffering from is good government — lack of good government.
AMY GOODMAN: Would you like all corporations to withdraw from Burma right now until SLORC is forced out?
AUNG SAN SUU KYI: Yes. Well, until SLORC understands that the way forward for the country is not through repression, but through reconciliation, and I do not think that all these corporations can do anything to help the country.
AMY GOODMAN: What other corporations are there?
AUNG SAN SUU KYI: There is Total, which is working with Unocal, and there are also other companies doing business here.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Aung San Suu Kyi in 1996. She remains under house arrest today. SLORC was the old name for the Burmese military dictatorship, the country that the dictatorship now calls Myanmar; Rangoon now called, by the military dictatorship, Yangon.
Katie Redford, what has happened to the thousands of monks who were marching in the streets?
KATHERINE REDFORD: It’s very difficult to broadly say what has happened to all of those people. The information coming out of the country, as you know, has been restricted. There are many different accounts of what has happened to them. Many have been killed. Many have been imprisoned. The regime and the military police were going door-to-door in Rangoon and other places where the protests were happening, just searching for people, not only the monks, but also students and civilians who had either participated or had just been accused of participating in these demonstrations.
And so, we at EarthRights are very concerned about the safety, about the human rights, about the rights to any kind of due process, which does not exist in Burma. And we’re very concerned about the people who have to live under this military dictatorship. It is not a safe or secure situation in Burma right now. And we need to keep the international focus on this regime and know that there will be accountability for these kinds of violations of fundamental human rights of monks and also other civilians of Burma.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Katie, how is it possible, given the enormous advances in communications of our day now, for the Burmese junta to so totally shut out the flow of information in and out of the country?
KATHERINE REDFORD: Well, this is something that they have mastered over the years. I mean, the Burmese junta has long controlled all forms of communication in the country, from opening people’s mail to listening to people’s telephones to making it very difficult for normal average people to own TVs, to own radios and to have access to the Internet. Everything in that country, including communications, is controlled by the military. And so, they control virtually everything, and with a flick of a switch, they can turn it off. And it doesn’t hurt for them that people are terrified and are absolutely afraid to do anything to oppose their will.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to turn back to the words of the Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. A decade ago, filmmaker John Pilger interviewed her in Rangoon while she was under house arrest. The interview appeared in John Pilger’s documentary Inside Burma: Land of Fear.
JOHN PILGER: What were the most difficult times to you personally during your house arrest?
AUNG SAN SUU KYI: There were times when I was worried for my colleagues, and there were times when I worried for our people out there, when they seemed to be undergoing a lot of repression. And then I worry about my sons very much, because the young one was only twelve, and he had to be put into boarding school. So, of course, naturally I worried about these things. But then I would always remind myself that the families of my colleagues were far worse off, because those of my colleagues who were put in prison in Burma, their families were also insecure.
JOHN PILGER: Were you able to stay in touch with Michael during that time?
AUNG SAN SUU KYI: Not throughout that time. There were times when we were out of touch.
JOHN PILGER: For how long? Was there —
AUNG SAN SUU KYI: I think the longest period was for about two years and four months or five months, something like that.
JOHN PILGER: No letters or anything during that time?
AUNG SAN SUU KYI: No.
JOHN PILGER: No letters from the children got through?
AUNG SAN SUU KYI: No.
JOHN PILGER: I would try to imagine being you and surrounded by hostile force, cut off from your family, your colleagues and comrades and friends. Weren’t there times when you were actually terrified?
AUNG SAN SUU KYI: No, because I didn’t feel hostile towards them. This is what people don’t seem to understand. They say, "Well, you must have been terrified." But why? I didn’t feel hostile towards the guards or the soldiers surrounding me, and I think fear comes out of hostility.
JOHN PILGER: You and your people are at present up against quite uncompromising and brute power. How can you reclaim the democracy that you won at the ballot box with that power confronting you?
AUNG SAN SUU KYI: I don’t think we are the first people who have had to face an uncompromising and brutal power in the quest for —
JOHN PILGER: No. But the question is, is the most difficult one, isn’t it?
AUNG SAN SUU KYI: — in the quest for freedom and basic human rights. I think we depend chiefly on our own people, on the will of our own people for democracy.
JOHN PILGER: But it still comes down to, on one side, there is a power that has all the guns.
AUNG SAN SUU KYI: But increasingly, I think it is getting more difficult in this world to resolve problems through military means. It is no longer acceptable. I do not think the ASEAN countries themselves would accept a military solution to the problem in Burma. And the fact that the authorities themselves are so keen on attacking us in their papers seem to indicate that they also are not depending on guns alone.
AMY GOODMAN: Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest. She was interviewed there by John Pilger in his film Inside Burma: Land of Fear, courtesy of Bullfrog Films.
Katie Redford, I want to play for you an excerpt of the documentary Total Denial, this part featuring your husband, Ka Hsaw Wa, talking about the student protests in Burma in 1988.
KA HSAW WA: Right after that, after, I would say, about three weeks, the student uprising started. I was so determined to participate in the student uprising to ask for freedom and democracy in Burma. We’re going around, school to school, talking to students to participate with us. The whole country participated with us. Even navy and police, government, you know, services, they joined with us. We heard everywhere they were shooting, but we still wanted to do our student peaceful demonstration. Many students were killed, many of my friends shot in the street. When they shot people, some people were just injured. In order for them to hide those atrocities, what they have done, they put all the people they just injured on the car together with other dead bodies, and then they buried them alive.
AMY GOODMAN: Burmese human rights activist Ka Hsaw Wa, the husband of Katie Redford, co-founder and co-director of EarthRights International, describing 1988, when the Burmese regime gunned down more than 3,000 Burmese.
Katie, your last comment, and if you could also explain Laura Bush’s interest in this. She has spoken out in a very rare political comment, saying that her cousin is a Burma activist, and that’s why she is decrying the violence and criticizing the Burmese regime. Who is her cousin?
KATHERINE REDFORD: I actually have no idea who her cousin is, but I feel like, whether you’re Laura Bush or whether you’re an average American citizen, it’s really impossible not to feel sympathy and compassion for the people of Burma. This is not a situation that has any grey area. This is a situation of black and white, where you have monks and students and innocent peaceful civilians simply marching in the streets, demanding human rights, democracy and an end to military rule on one side, and on the other side you have a brutal pariah regime, a military junta, gunning people down. So everyone in the world should care about Burma, should stand up and do something right now about Burma, with solidarity and with hope, so that their hope for freedom and democracy doesn’t die, because now is the time. It’s critical that we do something right now.
AMY GOODMAN: Katie Redford, thanks for being with us, co-director, co-founder of EarthRights International, just back from the Burmese-Thai border.