UK firm 'complicit in rights abuses' in Burma

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The Independent Online

A British-owned oil company has been accused of complicity in serious human rights abuses in Burma where the military has used locals as forced labour and "human minesweepers", according to a new report presented in a hearing in the European Parliament.

Premier Oil, and its French counterpart TotalFinaElf, were criticised on Thursday for benefiting financially from the presence of the Burmese military while the troops are engaged in "widespread and egregious human rights abuses".

A detailed study presented in the European Parliament said the oil companies depended on the Burmese military for the security of a pipeline that linked Burma and Thailand.

While Burmese troops defend the interests of oil companies in an area where ethnic conflict is rife, local people are paying a substantial price for the military's presence. There is no suggestion of any direct benefit accruing to the companies by reason of the abuses or that they are in any way involved with those abuses.

The document lists numerous incidents of troops using forced labour, which have taken place since mid-2000 in Tenasserim and Shan state, despite a government order banning it.

Using witness statements, the report paints a picture of a local population forced to work for nothing for the military on construction sites and army-owned infrastructure projects.

Marco Simons, from the pressure group EarthRights International, which compiled the dossier, says the worst form of forced labour is "portering where the soldiers force villagers to join them on patrols, carrying heavy loads of supplies and ammunition, exposed to gunfire and sometimes uses as human minesweepers". Mr Simons said there were "fairly well documented" incidents of porters being sent ahead of soldiers in areas that are mined.

Among the statements from witnesses, whose identities have been kept secret to protect them from reprisals, are harrowing accounts of the fear under which local people live. A witness said: "When the Burmese soldiers came to our village, they ordered the village head to arrange villages to work for them. If the villagers didn't go, they would beat and kick the village head. We could not refuse to go."

One witness said some men forced to work as porters were never seen again. Another person forced to work on a military plantation said: "If the soldiers saw you drifting off they would beat you with a machete that is encased in a bamboo sheath. They hit you right on the head."

The findings will increase the pressure on Premier Oil over its co-operation with a regime whose human rights record has brought it international condemnation. The Foreign Office has already called on the company to leave Burma.

Richard Howitt, the Labour MEP who organised yesterday's hearing, said there should be a ban on new investment in Burma. Yesterday there was a stark contrast between the position of the companies implicated, with Premier Oil claiming it tried to root out problems when they occurred.

Richard Jones, Premier Oil's global social responsibility manager, said: "Premier Oil has always taken the view that constructive engagement is more likely to bring about lasting positive change in this area and in the country." The company said if it pulled out of the country, its replacement would be less likely to express concern about human rights.

Jean-Pierre Cordier, the president of TotalFinaElf's ethical committee, rejected the report. "We can be proud of what we are doing there. I have just spent 10 days in the pipeline area. Five years ago 35,000 people were living there, today the figure is 43,000 because they knowthey at least have access to schools and doctors."