Filter +

The Future of Asia's Nature and Culture

Buddhist temples in Laos at 4:49AM. (mrlob/Flickr)

Buddhist temples in Laos at 4:49AM. (mrlob/Flickr)

Kirk Talbott
Just such a powerful presentation. I don’t need to add anything because it was so clear. Thank you so much for that. It was really an inspiring and very clear presentation looking at culture and talking about resettlement and every time you turn the electricity on. These are kinds of connection to such an essential environmental issue. Anybody have a question for Dai Qing, just a specific question or point of clarification? Just go ahead.

Were you able to sue the government?

Dai Qing
No one wanted to have my case. So I kept writing letters to the National People's Congress. I have this story as the beginning of my letter. The beginning is one of a European journalist who interviewed one of the key officials from the Three Gorges Authority, the journalist asked him what if someday something terrible happened to this project. The official said, "No way! Nothing will happen. It’s a great project." Then the journalist kept asking who will take responsibility if something happens? Who? The representative said the People’s Congress will take responsibility because they got the project approved. This is all on the surface. The power organization. But really, the power is in Jiang Zemin’s hand.

I kept writing letters to the official. The official said: "You will take the responsibility. I will give you some investigation. You’re my independent investigator. I hope you’ll continue to do this." The people want this project. They want the contract. They have several, very very important aspect. They try to lie to you about the whole budget situation, forced resettlements, the feasibility of environment study, every aspect and I mail my evidence. Every year, I mail my letter to it but the response is silence. No one notices me.

Kirk Talbott
Thank you so much. That’s a good question. It’s good to get some new ideas and provocative follow-up. And we’ll have more time in this discussion to link these. Let's go on to our next speaker. Again, you have the bios here so I don’t want to take up time reading it. But Kenny, whom I’ve just met tonight, he works really with an exciting organization, Earth Rights International. I happen to have seen the gestation of Earth Rights when a few young lawyers came out of the University of Virginia with some idealism and came up with the idea and started the first page of an organization. Then you read about them in the International Herald Tribune and their lawsuit against a US corporation and French multinational that were working in Burma. And so it’s great to have a representative from the organization. Kenny brings a whole lot of experience. As you can see, he’s got many years with Green Peace and everyone knows Green Peace as an organization. And people might disagree with their tactics or whatever else but nobody can disagree that their a world leader and have been in terms of environmental activism. He’s also worked for the Multinational Monitor which many policy folks in the country put a great deal of stock in. He has a valuable perspective and thanks for being here Kenny. 

Kenny Bruno
Thank you Kirk. First of all, I want to apologize on behalf of Kasawa, who is the co-founder and co-director of the Earth Rights International, who was originally supposed to speak here. Due to a lot of schedule changes after 9/11, he had to be in Thailand now. And he sends his warmest regards and wishes he could be here. I’m afraid, I’m just a pinch hitter for him tonight, which is a difficult job especially if you know him, then you realize it’s a tremendously difficult job but I’ll do my best and I’ll start out by telling you a little bit about him and it leads to how Earth Rights International got started and also the topic which we want to discuss tonight which, in focusing on Burma, a question of environment, human rights, and culture.

Kasawa was a university student in 1988 during the infamous brutal crackdown [in Burma] and after being captured and tortured for several days during that crackdown, he was let go. He was informed they were after him again and he fled Rangoon at that time and hasn’t been able to return since. He spent most if the next decade living on both Thai and Burmese side of the Thai/Burma border documenting human rights violations and environment degradation through literally hundreds of interviews with local villagers, mostly ethnic Karen and Shan. Kasawa is ethnic Karen, the largest ethnic minority in Burma.

His work on the border led to two major developments, at least within this little realm that we’re talking about. One was the founding of the group Earth Rights International when he joined up with two American lawyers, as Kirk said, from the University of Virginia, who were working in Thailand to form the group. They worked out of a tiny little room in Kanchanaburi for no money for several years. They continued on the work Kasawa devoted himself to which was documenting human rights abuses focusing mostly on the border area. That work led to a second fairly momentous event which was that some of the people that Kasawa interviewed in the Tenasserim region in Southern Burma who were victims of the human rights abuse. Their stories led back to two Western companies: Total, a French multinational oil company and Unocal, a California based oil company. Let me interrupt here for a minute to tell you about he project involved. I am not sure how many of you actually know about it, but it’s the Yadana Natural Gas Pipeline project. Total and Unocal are two of the partners. The other partners are the Thai energy company and the Burmese military itself. It was several years of work to come up with this report which is interviews with local people and a number of other things called Total Denial. We had a first report called "Total Denial" and this one Total Denial Continues. I didn’t bring many because it’s very heavy and I had to come on the subway. But I’ll leave a copy for the organizers of this event and if anybody wants a copy, you can contact me. Basically, what this research shows, including personal interviews with dozens of people in the region, is that the Unocal-Total Project was not simply a side event to a series of human rights violations, to a militarization of the area. It was actually the cause of the militarization of the area and the cause of an increase in forced labor, an increase in forced relocation, in torture, even some executions and rape in the region all due to increase military presence. The military committed these atrocities in the Tenasserim region, in the pipeline region were doing so on behalf of the pipeline consortium. So they were doing so on behalf of a US and a French company. When we discovered this connection, through the work in the border region, it led to a lawsuit. Kirk mentioned that we do a lot of legal work. Our tagline is "The power of law and the power of people in defense of human rights and the environment"; and we believe in using both. So we have a lawsuit that’s now in California State Court and an appeal in Federal Court in California against Unocal for human rights violations in Burma. And in the federal case, the judge who dismissed it actually wrote that despite the fact that he was dismissing it, that Unocal knew of and benefited from these human rights violations by the Burmese military.

Unocal is the largest investor, largest US investor I should say, but it’s not the only way the US supports the Burmese regime. We also support it through very large amounts of imports of apparel, mostly produced in sweatshop conditions, sometimes even worse than those in China that are a little better known. Burma does not have the size the apparel industry that China does obviously but it does have a sizable industry and it grew by close to 200% from 1999-2000. Even though the US has a sanctions law, which prohibits new investments on the one hand. So the US has a policy of sanctions against Burma for investment but on the other hand, they allow any amount of importation of apparel and other goods as well. The number two import from Burma is teak and that gets very much to the environmental issue because Burma accounts for about (I think Kirk is more of an expert on this than I am) 80% of the world’s teak stands. And even a higher percent or a similar percent, at least, of the world trade in teak. Is that about right?

Kirk Talbott
Until it goes.