One of the most damning pieces of evidence against the oil companies is the so-called “Robinson Cable,” a declassified cable sent from the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon to the U.S. State Department in 1995. The cable chronicles a meeting between the embassy staff and Joel Robinson, Unocal’s manager for special projects.
Most of Robinson’s comments are denials of various problems with the Yadana gas pipeline project, such as environmental damage and forced relocation of villages. But Robinson does not deny that the pipeline’s security forces conscript civilians for forced portering:
Robinson acknowledged that army units providing security for the pipeline construction do use civilian porters, and Total/Unocal cannot control their recruitment process. . . . .
Furthermore, Robinson indicated that Total and Unocal gave the Burmese military access to aerial photos and other information in order to “show the military where they need helipads built and facilities secured.” The construction of these helipads, however, was left to the military:
Robinson indicated at one point in the discussion that the military had not given Total/Unocal foreign staff access to helipad sites within many miles of the border during the period of their construction, but had allowed access after they were built. What has gone on at those sites is perforce out of view of expats.
Robinson also noted that he didn’t think that Total would hesitate to transport Burmese military commanders in company helicopters.
Robinson’s most incriminating statement concerns Unocal’s relationship with the Burmese military:
On the general issue of the close working relationship between Total/Unocal ano [sic] the Burmese military, Robinson had no apologies to make. He stated forthrightly that the companies have hired the Burmese military to provide security for the project and pay for this through the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE). He said three truckloads of soldiers accompany project officials as they conduct survey work and visit villages. He said Total’s security officials meet with military counterparts to inform them of the next day’s activities so that soldiers can ensure the area is secure and guard the work perimeter while the survey team goes about its business.
This belies Unocal’s claims that it is not responsible for the acts of the Burmese military. When Unocal and Total hire the military, tell them where to go, what to do, and depend on them for the security of their project, they are morally and legally responsible for the abuses that their security forces commit. As the author of the cable concluded, “it is impossible to operate in a completely abuse-free environment when you have the Burmese government as a partner.”
Full Text of the Robinson Cable
The following is the full text of a declassified cable sent from the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon to the State Department in 1995 (Cable No. 002067, declassified Nov. 23, 1999). The text has not been edited; it consists mostly of denials of various problems on the Yadana pipeline project, but also contains a few key admissions.
Text of the Cable
1. Summary: In separate conversations last week with Unocal’s manager for special projects Joel Robinson and American freelance journalist (and outspoken SLORC opponent) Doug Steele, we were presented with starkly contrasting views of the Total/Unocal gas pipeline project currently underway northernmost [sic] Tenasserim State. Steele, the author of series [sic] of attention-getting articles in the May 7 Bangkok Sunday Post, stuck by his contention that “slave labor” is being employed and villagers’ land is being confiscated for the pipeline. He also repeated the charge that Total has provided the Burmese military with intelligence for its drive against the KNU. Robinson denied the charges, provided clarification on many points, and described in great detail the efforts Total/Unocal have been making to avoid human rights abuses and environmental damage. While Robinson made a convincing case on a great many points, even he seemed to acknowledge that, with the Burmese military as a partner, it is impossible to eliminate all potential for abuse. End Summary.
Hearing Out Both Sides
2. By happenstance, we have just had an opportunity to hear out both sides in the ongoing public discussion over alleged human rights abuses/environmental degradation related to the Total/Unocal gas pipelines project. Douglas Steele, an American freelance journalist who, along with the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma’s Washington Office, administers Internet’s BurmaNet, called on POLOFF May 5, just two days before Steele’s articles on the pipeline appeared in the Bangkok Post, and later spoke with others at the embassy. His articles have attracted a great deal of attention — including from Unocal — because they are apparently the first to allege human rights abuses on the pipeline project itself (and not just on the Ye-Tavoy railway project) backed by what he claims to be eyewitness accounts from persons directly involved. The articles provoked a strongly worded lead editorial in the Bangkok Post on May 10 denouncing foreign corporations for doing business with the SLORC (Ref A).
3. As luck would have it, on May 8 and 9 Joel Robinson, Unocal’s California-based manager for special projects, met with CHARGE, A/DCM, and EMBOFFS to explain what Total/Unocal have been doing to try to ensure their project is above reproach. We used the meeting with Robinson to ask him about Steele’s charges.
4. While Steele himself did not raise the environmental question in his articles or in our meetings, the Bangkok Post did, suggesting international corporations prefer dealing with dictatorial regimes able to override public concern for the environment impact of projects like the pipeline. The Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB) and the National Democratic Front (NDF) have both reportedly charge [sic] that the project will damage the Tenasserim rain forest.
5. Unocal’s Robinson directly addressed these concerns. He noted that Total had been considering three routes for the pipeline, initially favoring a path along the Zinba River, but in the end opted for the northernmost route. This decision was taken after Total sent tropical rain forest experts to “walk” the routes in order to assess them. These experts advised Total to choose the northern route in order to avoid both “high quality” rain forest that had had little contact with humans as well as environmentally sensitive areas along the Zinba River. Robinson added that Unocal would like to see the high quality tropical rain forest south of the pipeline declared a nature preserve, “but that takes money.” According to Total’s environmental experts, the northern route looked environmentally important from the air, but a closer inspection revealed it already bore damage from human activity, including logging, hunting, and slash and burn agriculture. Robinson noted that engineers also concluded that the northern route was the cheapest.
6. Robinson maintained that none of the chosen pipeline route in Burma goes through “quality tropical forest.” After initially traversing heavily settled agricultural land, the middle section goes through mixed deciduous evergreen forest, and the final part goes through tropical lowland humid forest. (Note: Robinson provided copies of rough maps/sketches of the route, which we have pouched to EAP/TB. A more detailed map he showed us indicated that a portion of the first section of the pipeline route is slightly south of the route shown in the pouched sketches. End Note.) As Robinson explained it, the pipeline will come ashore between the villages of Daminzeik and Hpaungdaw, then proceed near Onbinkwin, skirt the Heinze Chaung (a bay and estuary), cross it along a bridge near Kanbauk, turn northeast, go straight over the Thika Taung Pass, turn south, go along the north side of the Zinba River without crossing it, turn due east, and finally go up steep hills to Ban-I-Tong near the Thai border. He said Unocal’s responsibility for the route ended at the Thai border.
7. According to Steele’s account of interviews with refugees in Thailand from the village of Hpaungdaw, where the pipeline will com ashore, Burmese Villagers are being forced “to clear a 300-foot-wide right-of-way for the pipeline and accompanying roadway.” In our talks with Steele, he reiterated his confidence in what these refugees told him directly. Robinson, on the other hand, claimed Total/Unocal had “looked into” the charges and that they could be traced to one refugee who had been “confused” and frightened by what local authorities had told him about the project, and had conveyed his concern to others in the village and to refugees. In an attempt to cast doubt on the reliability of the sources, Robinson said the articles repeatedly referred to a villager named Kyaw Than, who appeared to be a confused mixture of two people in Hpaungdaw village.
8. While we cannot comment on the reliability of Steele’s and Robinson’s sources, Robinson offered several other points to refute the charges. He said that no land will be cleared for the pipeline until early 1996, and at that time, both because of cost and environmental impact, the width of the cut being made for the line is being kept as narrow as possible — 18-20 meters for most of the route, including the road alongside the pipeline, the pipeline itself, and the area taken up by the pile of dirt to be used to bury the pipeline once it is complete (the pipeline will be buried one-and-a-half-to-two meters deep to improve security and reduce the environmental impact) (see also para. 25, below). Robinson did admit the cut must be wider in areas of steep terrain or in places for marshalling pipe or for trucks to turn around, but he claimed less than one percent of the cut will be wider than 30 meters. He also indicated 20-30 hectares of land are being cleared near where the pipeline comes ashore for storing pipe, and a few miles away dredging has begun and a wharf will be built in Heinze Chaung so barges can land equipment. Comment: This activity might explain the conflict in the Steele/Robinson accounts, although Robinson claimed none of this clearing has been done with forced labor. Robinson noted that the military has built helicopter landing pads at various points along the route, and that in the hills near the Thai border, the top of a knoll will be cut off and two-three hectares will be cleared for a metering station.
9. On the advice of a wildlife biologist who studied the route, Total will install nets between large trees at various points to ensure that animals living in the trees can cross the route without having to touch ground.
10. Robinson said Total is building an all-weather gravel and macadam finish road about 15 feet wide along most of the route. Although the Energy Minister told EMBOFFS that this route will go through to Thailand to enable Thai tourists to reach Burmese beaches, Robinson said the road might not go through the last one or two kilometers to Thailand because the mountains are too steep. Instead, Total is considering building a kind of skilift to allow workers to service the pipeline. He acknowledged that the GOB may decide to complete the road to Thailand on its own but noted that this area gets 300–450 inches of rain a year, making road maintenance difficult and costly.
11. The real extent of the road’s impact on the environment will depend on how it is used, something Robinson suggested is beyond Total/Unocal’s responsibility. He readily admitted the road could open up the area of the pipeline to new settlement and so threaten the environment. (Comment: It can, of course, also facilitate the movement of troops in this insurgency–prone area.) In order to lower road maintenance costs, Total/Unocal would prefer that the military keep people off the road, but Robinson conceded he does not really know how the road will be administered, and even if he did, his company would not be in a position to oppose GOB plans for its use.
12. According to Steele, land seizures are already going on at least to a limited extent for the pipeline. He recounted his conversation with one villager who was incensed at not only losing his land but being forced to clear it before he left.
13. Robinson claimed that no land had been seized for the project, but admitted that survey crews had occupied tiny amounts of farmland for a few hours at a time to place their equipment, and that every 500 meters along the initial section of the route, crews also installed a metal cylinder 10 centimeters (cm) in diameter and 30 cm high. Robinson suggested there was nothing to prevent farmers planting their crops around these small cylinders. (Comment: Considering the importance of this project to the SLORC and the Burmese military’s heavy-handed methods, farmers might nonetheless prefer to keep their distance.) Robinson said a one-to-two meter wide path has also been cleared through jungle in three sections of the route. According to Robinson, survey crews have temporarily taken land not being farmed for use as camps, to drill core samples, etc., and in at least one case rented a shack at one these sites. Total established its large base camp at an abandoned mining site. Total/Unocal are currently in the process of closing down their survey operations until after the rainy season. (Comment: Given that the GOB regularly seizes land from farmers, it cannot be ruled out entirely that some of this land “not being farmed” could have been seized by the GOB, and ordered to be cleared before Total survey crews arrived.)
14. Robinson said that, when pipeline construction proceeded, farmers would have to give up land. In general, he insisted that the minimum amount of land needed to carry out project will be taken. Robinson said Total would compensate people for the land at true market rates, and was having a team of engineers, a hydrologist, and Burmese government agricultural experts conduct an accurate valuation of any land taken. Had Total relied on standard Burmese government estimates, he said, compensation for the land would have been greatly reduced. He said the company also plans to offer jobs to the people whose land is taken and provide irrigation connections so that a field split by the pipeline can still be watered.
15. In one of his Bangkok Post articles, Steele suggests the pipeline will pass through several Karen and Mon villages. Robinson, by contrast, told us the pipeline will go through only one village located at the start of the route, and even then it will remain at a distance of 500 meters from the built-up area. He said he had flown over the entire pipeline route 12 times looking for signs of man and had seen hunting camps and fishing sites and little else.
16. Steele contended that whole villages have been relocated on account of the pipeline. He pointed to an April 17 advertisement in the Bangkok press placed by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) which refers to the relocation by the SLORC of 11 Karen villages on account of concerns for the pipeline’s security. (Comment: We have heard other claims that this kind of relocation sometimes takes place before foreigners arrive on the scene to witness such abuse.)
17. Robinson himself told us he has seen no evidence that villages have been moved, despite considerable low-level flying over the pipeline route. He was aware of the EGAT advertisement and is seeking clarification from EGAT concerning the source of its information. He acknowledged that the GOB moved the Karen village of Migyaunglaung in 1991, allegedly because of its insurgent sympathies, but the Unocal special projects official pointed out that that was before Total/Unocal discovered gas. After the March 8 attack on a Total/Unocal survey team, some Burmese military officials fingered the Eindayaza village, which is overwhelmingly Karen, with involvement in the attack and so wanted to moved it. Robinson indicated that Total/Unocal project officials told the local tactical commander that it was a military call, but that the oil companies did not want the village moved on their account because it would cause local resentment. Robinson said the village has not been moved to date, but military and Total officials have discouraged him from visiting, citing security concerns.
18. The most attention-arresting of Steele’s charges is his contention, again based on interviews with persons said to have been directly targeted, that forced labor is being used on the pipeline project. This runs directly counter to Total/Unocal’s repeated statements that it does not use forced labor. It also goes beyond earlier attempts by some human rights activists to link the two companies indirectly to forced labor with the argument that the pipeline project will be supported by the Ye- Tavoy Railroad, whose construction is widely believed to employ forced labor. It is worth nothing in this context Robinson’s statement to us that Total/Unocal has pledged not to use any part of the Ye-Tavoy Railroad. Robinson said much of the material for the pipeline will be brought in by barge, and that none will come via rail. He made no comment when we noted the additional argument made by some that the Ye-Tavoy railroad will indirectly support the pipeline through servicing the military sent to protect Total/Unocal’s gas line.
19. Beyond denying charges of forced labor, Robinson went into great detail on just what steps Total/Unocal are taking to try to ensure forced labor is not used on their project. Robinson predicted that by 1996-97, Total will have 1,000 employees working on the project, 90 percent of whom will be Burmese. Consistent with what we had been told previously (Ref E), the Unocal special projects manager indicated Total will control the labor contracting for both the road and the pipeline. He said Total will pay a daily wage of 200 kyats (about us $2 at the unofficial free market exchange rate) for unskilled labor, 250 kyats for semi-skilled, and 300 kyats for skilled labor. (Comment: These wages are lavish by Burmese standards, where a senior civil servants earns 3000 kyats per month.) He said Total/Unocal plan to draw workers from 13 villages and have calculated specific percentages of workers to come from each, based on the size of the village and its proximity to the pipeline. For the limited land clearing work done to date in connection with surveying, Robinson insisted all workers have been paid. He denied any Total/Unocal link to the reported labor camp at Zinba (about five miles from the route of the pipeline), suggesting instead that it was used to build the Ye-Tavoy railroad.
20. Robinson acknowledged that army units providing security for the pipeline construction do use civilian porters, and Total/Unocal cannot control their recruitment process. Robinson said Total meets the porters at the marshalling camp, where a Total doctor gives them a physical exam. Some are sent home due to their poor physical condition (the companies accept only male porters between 18-45 years of age). Robinson said Total keeps careful records of the porters to ensure they are paid. He said these records of workers and porters showed that they had not been overly drawn from just one village, in fact, the most that had been drawn from a particular village so far was three.
21. Robinson said Total inspects the working conditions of the porters, issues them a photo ID, and coupons for each day of work, and records the number of days the porter has worked, so that at the end of his service (some porters served for as long as two-three months) the porter himself can come to a Total camp and collect his wages of 200 kyat/day. He expressed concern that the porters make about five times the average pay of soldiers. He suggested Total/Unocal do their part in getting the proper wages to these workers directly, but cannot take responsibility for what might happen afterwards if some or all the wages are taken by the military or others. (Comment: We have not heard that this had in fact happened.)
22. Comment continued: All of what Robinson describes the companies doing for the benefit of workers on the project presumably applies to worksites in areas secure enough for Total to visit with military escort. Robinson indicated at one point in the discussion that the military had not given Total/Unocal foreign staff access to helipad sites within many miles of the border during the period of their construction, but had allowed access after they were built. What has gone on at those sites is perforce out of view of expats. Given the easier access of villagers from these areas to Thailand, it is possible that some of those complaining of abuses to journalists and human rights groups may be from such areas where the Burmese military might have a freer hand out of range of the direct oversight of the oil companies.
23. Comment continued: Some of the charges of forced labor near Hpaungdaw may stem from the military’s order, after the March 8 attack of the Total survey crew, that villages clear 20-30 meters on either side of the road (which pre-dated the pipeline project) that ran near the first part of the pipeline route. Robinson admitted that villagers were not paid for this work, which include removing boulders and large trees. (Note: Similar to the work described in Steele’s articles. End Note.) He claimed that Total/Unocal are not responsible for the people forced to do this work because army decided “for its own purposes” that the roadsides should be cleared. Two-three months earlier, he recalled the military believed the roadsides did not need to be cleared. (Comment: This would seem to raise the prospect of the Burmese military coming to feel the same need for heightened security along the pipeline road — with similar consequences with regard to forced labor and the environment.)
Security/Relations With The military
24. According to Robinson, there have been no recent threats against the pipeline, but last year the KNU threatened to turn it into a “line of fire” (Note: He made no reference to the reported interest of the KNU in receiving a share of the pipeline’s revenues, presumably in exchange for leaving the pipeline alone. End Note). Robinson explained that an attack would probably cause only limited damage because the pipeline (which will be underground) will be equipped with a rapid decompression system, resulting in a quick flareout and little else. He said he hopes Total will install valve blocks to make the shutdown automatic, in order to speed the process.
25. As a result of the March 8 attack (Ref F), Robinson said survey work had had to be halted for about three weeks. Total had hoped to complete surveying of the entire route this dry season but in the end confined its work to only the initial segment. He noted that Total paid compensation to the families of the victims of the attack. As to the future, Robinson suggested there will probably be one-to-five AMCITS involved in the construction phase, most residing in Rangoon and visiting the site. He predicted there will be no AMCITS in the area when production starts in 1998. At the same time, he admitted he has no idea how many AMCITS might be brought in by contractors working on the pipeline.
26. Regarding Steele’s charges that a Total helicopter ferried a Burmese tactical operations commander to inspect an area of BA fighting against the Karen in early March and that Total shared aerial photography of the battlefield site with the Burmese military, Robinson admitteo [sic] he did not have firsthand knowledge to refute this. From his general knowledge of proceoures [sic], though, he suggested there is probably little fire beneath the smoke of the charges. If Total had an empty seat in its helicopter traveling to a border area helipao [sic] along the pipeline route, the company would not hesitate to give it to a commander upon whom the company depenos for its own security. What he did think unlikely, though, is that the French pilots would veer off the immediate route of the pipeline to accommodate the wishes of the local commander because the pilots are already skittish about operating in such a dicey situation and are instructed to keep operating costs down for the helicopter, which is being rented by the hour.
27. On the aerial intelligence question, Robinson indicated it would hardly be surprising for the Burmese military to have access to the company’s aerial photos, precision surveys, and topography maps since Total/Unocal uses these to show the military where they need helipads built and facilities secured. He said the information is of little military use because it is confined to the pipeline route.
28. On the general issue of the close working relationship between Total/Unocal ano [sic] the Burmese military, Robinson had no apologies to make. He stated forthrightly that the companies have hired the Burmese military to provide security for the project and pay for this through the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE). He said three truckloads of soldiers accompany project officials as they conduct survey work and visit Villages. He said Total’s security officials meet with military counterparts to inform them of the next day’s activities so that soldiers can ensure the area is secure and guard the work perimeter while the survey team goes about its business.
Winning Hearts And Minds
29. Robinson said Total/Unocal wanted people living near the pipeline to “like the project.” To build goodwill, the companies have established village communication committees (VCC’s) to facilitate communication between Total/Unocal and local residents. He said Total set up the VCC’s outside the local SLORC administrative system, but acknowledged village LORC members have been among the 10-25 people attending the VCC meetings Total has held to date. (He said Total was keeping a record of the name and occupation of meeting participants.) Robinson himself has been to 11 VCC meetings, which represented 12 villages. Military officers in uniform were present at two of these, but for the others, the military escort accompanying Robinson and the other Total/Unocal officials secured the perimeter of the village but stayed out of earshot of the meeting. He said the VCC’s will continue to meet for the life of the project. At the meetings, Robinson said Total officials have discussed such matters as labor supply for the pipeline, procedures for paying porters, acquisition of land for the pipeline, and Total/Unocal-donated village aid. He said the VCC’s have suggestion boxes where people can anonymously let Total know if they “are doing anything wrong.”
30. Comment: Setting up VCC’s is no doubt a well intentioned move, but our knowledge of general conditions here leaves us to question how frank the feedback from villagers will be. International NGO’s here have told us it is well nigh impossible to establish a productive relationship with villagers when outsiders arrive accompanied by a military escort. This would seem especially likely to be true in ethnic minority areas, where the BA is viewed as a force not just of oppression but of occupation.
31. Robinson explained that Total has done a census as well as socio-economic and ethnographic surveys of villages all along the route to help assess their health, education, and other needs (we have pouched a map showing some of this survey data to EAP/TB). He said the VCC’s would be asked to keep track of some of this data (in exchange for aid) over the 30 year life of the project, so that the company can assess its impact.
32. As another goodwill gesture, Total has brought a doctor to conduct impromptu clinics in villages where VCC meetings are taking place. The company has also asked each VCC to provide a wishlist of its communal needs, and in response received a number of modest requests, such as “fly-free” latrines, school materials, or mechanized tillers, all of which Total supplied within a month.
33. To bring larger-scale assistance to these villages, Total plans to work through the GOB. Robinson said it has not been possible to locate a suitable non-governmental alternative, and that the GOB has the capacity to provide such assistance, to be financed by Total/Unocal. He cited as examples bringing a veterinarian from the livestock breeding and fisheries ministry to assess the health of local livestock, or bringing forestry ministry officials down to study setting up a wildlife preserve. According to Robinson, Unocal believes such aid is needed to compensate for the negative side-effects the pipeline project brings with it, including inflation and income disparity. He said Unocal does this type of work in other countries, but because of the additional public relations problems of working in Burma, the company is “bending over backwards” to ensure that its presence helps the local people.
34. Comment: Although there are several international NGO’s already in the country eager to do more work, and others are trying to get in, Robinson said Total/Unocal could not find a suitable one willing to be associated with the controversial Total project. Robinson also said the GOB was not eager to have international NGO’s in this sensitive border area. Beyond this, and without gainsaying any effort made to bring some material assistance to such terribly deprived people, we cannot help but note our own policy of discouraging the channeling of aid through the GOB, which in similar contexts elsewhere in the country is using aid as a political instrument to solidify its control.
Comment And Conclusion
35. With its shareholder meeting coming up on May 22, Robinson said Unocal wants to be “as apolitical as it can and try to treat people fairly at the local level.” Judging by what Robinson laid out for us, the company seems to be going to extraordinary lengths to meet its objective. But the fact that Total/Unocal have to undertake such measures, and still find themselves tarred by unacceptable GOB actions, says much about the difficulties and potential perils of working with the SLORC.
36. We have not yet been able to travel to the area concerned (when we received GOB permission to go to Tavoy, the flight was cancelled), so are not in a position to offer an independent assessment of the facts as presented by Steele and Robinson. In some instances, like the sharing of access to aerial photographs of the pipeline route, it seems the same facts can take on quite different implications, depending on the viewer’s vantage point. At the same time, there certainly is no denying that Total/Unocal are working hard to prevent abuse. Robinson rejects the notion, however, that Total/Unocal bear responsibility for various demands for forced labor imposed by the military outside the framework of the pipeline project. As his denial of company responsibility for the forced road-clearing attests, it is impossible to operate in a completely abuse-free environment when you have the Burmese government as a partner. Meyers
- The original text has been copied verbatim; typographical and grammatical errors appearing in the original are marked [sic].
- The original text was in all capital letters; we have used ordinary capital and lowercase letters.
- Various page numbers, routing codes, classifications, and other extraneous codes that appear in the original cable have not been reproduced.
- None of the attached references are available.
- Acronyms and terms used in this cable:
- AMCITS: American citizens
- BA: Burmese Army
- CHARGE: Charge d’Affairs, the highest officer in the U.S. Embassy in Burma, since the U.S. currently has no ambassador to Burma
- DCM: Deputy Chief of Mission
- EAP/TB: Thailand/Burma desk at the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs
- EMBOFFS: Embassy Officers
- GOB: Government of Burma
- KNU: Karen National Union
- LORC: Law and Order Restoration Council, Burma’s local governments
- NGO: non-governmental organization
- POLOFF: Political Officer
- SLORC: The State Law and Order Restoration Council, the original name of Burma’s brutal military regime, which now goes by the State Peace and Development Council