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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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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