Burmese villagers 'forced to work on Total pipeline'

French energy giant accused of profiting as new testimony gives shocking insight into junta's labour regime

The French energy giant Total is at the centre of allegations that Burmese villagers are being used as forced labour to help support a huge gas pipeline that is earning the country's military regime hundreds of millions of dollars.

Testimony from villagers and former soldiers gathered by human rights workers suggests that Burmese soldiers, who provide security for the Yadana pipeline on behalf of Total, are forcing thousands of people to work portering, carrying wood and repairing roads in the pipeline area. They have also been forced to build police stations and barracks.

One villager, identified pseudonymously as Htay Win Oo, told researchers from the Thailand-based human rights group EarthRights International (ERI): "Since early 2009 I've [witnessed] Burmese soldiers ... that are stationed near our village ask our village to build a new police camp. The soldiers ordered villagers to build a new camp in late March. The land where they set up the new camp belongs to local villagers ... the soldiers ordered villagers to help build it. Villagers had to cut bamboo, wood, and leaves for the building and at the same time they had to build it."

Burma's junta, the State Peace and Development Council, officially outlawed the use of forced labour in 1999. However, campaigners say troops routinely force civilians to work for them and those who refuse are often beaten, tortured or sometimes killed.

Total insists that forced labour is not used around the pipeline. On its website, the company states: "The local inhabitants around the Yadana pipeline say that they are happy to have us there. They are, above all, grateful that there is no forced labour in the area around our pipeline."

Yet such claims are not supported by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the UN agency that works in Burma to try and stop forced labour.

Steve Marshall, an ILO spokesman, said: "It would be unfair and inaccurate to say that the pipeline area is forced-labour free. Total does not control the area, it operates it. In terms of the pipeline area, there are big areas that are outside its control. As we understand it, forced labour is still being used there by other entities, though to a much lesser extent [than in some areas]."

The evidence collected by ERI and due to be published next month suggests that villagers are routinely forced to work in various guises. One former soldier from the 273 battalion said: "We were told it was a 30-year project and the country got half and the foreigners got half of the benefit ... We ask [the villagers] to carry shell ammunition, food and supplies.

"During the portering the soldiers treat porters not so good. I do not want to mention about these bad things so much since I myself I have done it to these people as well at that time." Matthew Smith, of the ERI, said that Total was misleading the public, shareholders and investors about its impact in Burma and said the company was responsible for the abuses committed by troops guarding its project. "The evidence is unassailable that the Yadana project ushered in the Burmese army and that the Burmese army continues to provide security for the companies and the project," he said. "The company has been complicit in abuses."

The question of whether foreign companies, with an eye on Burma's riches of oil and gas, should invest in one of the world's most repressive regimes, has come into sharper focus following this week's decision by the regime to detain opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi for a further 18 months under house arrest and the subsequent demand for tougher sanctions from campaigners.

Yet projects such as the Yadana pipeline, which transports gas from fields in the Andaman Sea through south-east Burma into Thailand, are hugely attractive to both the investors and the junta. Research suggests the regime earned $969m (£585m) from the Yadana project in 2007. Total has declined to say how much it earns.

It is not the first time Total has been at the centre of forced labour allegations in Burma. In 2005 it paid $6.12m in an out-of-court settlement after a group of villagers living near the Yadana pipeline alleged the company was involved in human rights abuses.

Last night a spokeswoman for Total said: "We are reviewing [ERI's allegations] and intend to adjust our website in the coming weeks so that it can publicly address the issues, whenever possible. It should also be noted that people in the villages around the pipeline are grateful for the fact that systematic recourse to forced labour in the area where Total operates has stopped. Such acknowledgements have been consistently repeated in front of independent experts commissioned to periodically evaluate the impact of our activities."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones