NEW YORK (Reuters) - A human rights watchdog group on Tuesday accused Chevron Corp (CVX.N) of complicity in human rights abuses along a natural gas pipeline in Myanmar in which it holds a stake and said Chevron could be sued.
EarthRights International claimed in a report issued on Tuesday that Myanmar’s army has in recent years committed serious abuses including rape and murder while providing security for the pipeline that moves gas from the Yadana gas field, located offshore in the Andaman Sea.
The group also said the army has forced Burmese citizens to build sentry posts, perform security duties along the pipeline and maintain roads.
“The people of Burma are making the pipeline go through their own physical energy, their blood, their sweat and their tears,” Katie Redford, U.S. office director of EarthRights, said in an interview.
“That’s what ‘Human Energy’ means in Burma,” Redford said, referring to Chevron’s current advertising campaign, which aims to improve the company’s image on environmental and social issues.
Myanmar was called Burma until 1989, and opposition groups and some countries have not recognized the name change.
The country has been under military control since a 1962 coup d’etat.
The army held elections in 1990, but did not hand over power when it was defeated by opposition party the National League for Democracy.
Last year, protests led by Myanmar’s Buddhist monks brought massive crowds to its largest city, Yangon, but demonstrations were halted after security forces raided monasteries and imposed curfews.
EarthRights International said its report was the result of more than 70 interviews as well as informal contacts.
Chevron said it strongly disagreed with the report. “The allegations of human rights abuses associated with the project are baseless,” spokesman Kurt Glaubitz said in a statement.
Yadana “helps meet the energy needs of people in the region, supports critical health, education and infrastructure programs, and serves as a positive influence in the country,” he said, adding that third-party audits have touted the benefits of community engagement programs along the pipeline.
Washington banned new investments in Myanmar by U.S. companies in 1997, but Chevron took over a 28-percent stake in the Yadana project when it purchased Unocal in 2005.
French oil company Total SA (TOTF.PA) owns 31 percent and operates the project, which produced 761 million cubic feet per day in 2007. Thai energy company PTT (PTT.BK) and Myanmar’s state owned Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise are also partners in Yadana.
The field’s pipeline runs from the project to the Thai border, including a 39-mile (63-kilometer) stretch in Myanmar.
EarthRights said in the report that the field has been a vital economic lifeline for the Myanmar military government, and estimated that it would generate nearly $1 billion in revenue for the country this year.
Accusations of human rights violations along the pipeline are not new. In 2005, shortly before Chevron announced plans to buy it, Unocal settled a lawsuit brought by Burmese villagers who claimed they had been abused.
Activists at EarthRights International served as counsel for the villagers in that case.
Companies working on the Yadana project invited a group called Collaborative for Development Action (CDA) to inspect the pipeline region for human rights violations.
Mary Anderson, president of CDA, said CDA has been told in hundreds of interviews with villagers, diplomats and others that forced labor generally does not occur in the pipeline corridor because the company stops it if it does.
“The company has access to the big ears,” she said. “One phone call and they can make it stop.”
Asked to comment on EarthRights claims that it has interviewed villagers who have fled the region because of abuse, Anderson said, “One would have to assume that it is still going on in places, but if anything it is far less inside the (pipeline) corridor than outside the corridor.”
EarthRights has called on Chevron and the other oil and gas companies in Myanmar to suspend ongoing projects, stop development of new ones and refuse to sell gas that funds the military government.
It also has recommended that companies working on the Yadana project stop using the Myanmar military as security and use their influence with the government to press for human rights advances.
The group left open the possibility of a lawsuit, saying settlement of the previous lawsuit does not protect Chevron from lawsuits from other plaintiffs from Myanmar.
Chevron is already facing high-profile lawsuits over alleged human rights violations in Nigeria and claims of environmental damage in Ecuador.
Ka Hsaw Wa, executive director of EarthRights, said that while a lawsuit was a last resort, “The people of Burma can hold Chevron responsible in a U.S. court. We have enough evidence.”
Ka Hsaw Wa fled Burma after a crackdown on political activists in 1988. He was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize and the Reebok Human Rights Award in 1999.
“Our main objective is to stop human rights violations along the pipeline,” he said.
Reporting by Michael Erman, Editing by Toni Reinhold