The American energy corporation Chevron's partnership with Myanmar's military junta has contributed to the regime's human rights abuses on "hundreds, if not thousands" of people, said a human rights watchdog Tuesday.
EarthRights International claimed in a report that soldiers guarding a Chevron pipeline that takes natural offshore gas through to Thailand were so brutal as to expose the corporation to "massive potential liabilities in US courts."
The report dismisses Chevron's claims that its presence - bringing development projects - benefits the people as a flimsy public relations band-aid.
"Any benefits Chevron brings are dwarfed by the terror and pain inflicted by the military. Throwing a little money around makes little practical difference to the people," said Kate Redford, EarthRights' US director, speaking at a press conference in Bangkok, dpa reported.
Chevron, which denies the allegations, joined the so-called Yadana project in 2005 when it purchased Unocal Corporation. Shortly before its takeover Unocal paid compensation to settle a lawsuit in the US over abuses perpetrated around the Yadana project.
The report claims the army forced villagers to work for nothing, including building military infrastructure, and generally oversaw project security with a reign of fear.
"The victims number hundreds if not thousands, judging from how many people are coming across" the border into Thailand, Redford said.
Soldiers have regularly been alleged to take advantage of their privileged position under an authoritarian regime to rape and murder with impunity, the report added. EarthRights said more than 70 witnesses were interviewed for the report.
The Yadana project provides the cash-strapped military, who have ruled since a 1962 coup, with critical foreign currency, taking in 1 billion dollars in revenues in 2007 alone. The military government spends remarkably little on education and healthcare, but an estimated 40 per cent of its budget on the military, the report added.
The French oil company Total owns 31 per cent of the Tadana scheme which it operates. Chevron took over Unocal's 28 per cent stake, although the US government has banned new investments since 1997. The Thai and Myanmar state energy companies are also partners in the project.
Chevron has issued statements denying these charges, claiming that its presence actually reduces the incidence of human rights abuses where it operates.
EarthRights said that Chevron's launch of its "The Power Of Human Energy" publicity campaign last year, around the time that massive public protests against military rule were building up in Myanmar, was cynical.
"If Chevron thinks they can distract the international community with public relations gimmicks they should think again," said Marco Simmons, EarthRights legal director.