RANGOON, BURMA — HUMAN rights groups are charging the military government of Burma with using slave labor to help build a natural-gas pipeline owned in part by Unocal Corp., a Los Angeles-based oil company.
Thousands of villagers are forced to build roads and act as porters for soldiers protecting the pipeline site, according to peasants inside Burma (also called Myanmar) interviewed by one of these groups. Previous reports about slave labor on the pipeline have come from refugees fleeing to Thailand.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi repeated the charges in a videotaped message Tuesday to a meeting in Manila on human rights organized by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. She urged foreign companies not to invest in Burma while forced labor is being used on such projects.
''In the long run, it will be the businessmen themselves who will be hurt investing at the wrong time,'' she said. Ms. Suu Kyi also called on her countrymen to form independent labor unions to protect themselves from forced labor.
The pipeline project has been controversial from its beginning, drawing fire from opponents of Burma's military government, including democracy leader Suu Kyi. ''Any project that makes the people suffer is not one that I could support,'' she said earlier.
The $1 billion project, being jointly constructed by Unocal and France's Total oil company, is projected to bring natural gas from Burma to neighboring Thailand by the end of the century.
Unocal and Total strongly deny that forced labor or any other human rights violations occur on their project. Officials at both companies refused requests for interviews. But Unocal President John Imle told a group of environmentalists earlier this year, ''We will build our own roads with our own labor, with no impressed labor.''
The oil companies, however, have no control over what happens in rural villages far from oil-company base camps, according to critics.
The Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), a nongovernmental organization based in northern Thailand, regularly interviews Karens, one of the many Burmese ethnic groups waging guerrilla war against the military regime. One man from the village of Kanbauk told KHRG that some Burmese were hired to build access roads for the pipeline. But many others were press ganged.
''The forced laborers cut down the trees,'' he said, ''then the paid laborers cleared them away.'' The English language daily Bangkok Post estimates that thousands of Burmese are forced to labor on pipeline-related work.
Zunetta Liddell, a researcher for Human Rights Watch/Asia, says the central government may formally allocate money to pay the laborers. But because Army salaries are quite low, she says, ''The central government expects the local commanders to live off the people, and the laborer's pay is usually taken.''
The pipeline has generated intense opposition. On March 8, guerrillas killed five Total employees and wounded 11. The attack was carried out by the army of the Karen National Union, according to an official in this ethnic rebel group. The Burmese military has moved an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 troops into the pipeline area.
''For the villagers, it [the troop movement] means forced labor building and maintaining their Army camps, building supply roads and extortion of money,'' says Kevin Heppner, spokesman for the KHRG. Soldiers collect ''pipeline taxes'' from villagers, he says, although the oil companies, not the government, are paying for all construction. Villagers must bring their own food and tools.
According to a recent report by Amnesty International, hundreds of people have died in these labor camps.
WHILE the Burmese military regime denies that forced labor is involved in the pipeline project, it openly boasts of ''voluntary labor'' used to build other infrastructure such as roads and bridges.
Burma has a long tradition of voluntary contribution to collective welfare, say government officials. Rajan Pillai, an investment banker in Rangoon, says critics don't understand Asian traditions. The system of voluntary labor, he says, ''is no different than the national service that many Western democracies impose on their young men.''
Sein Winn, Burmese prime minister in exile, rejects that analogy. Mr. Winn, an elected member of parliament who was forced to flee the capital, now heads a coalition of opposition parties that won the 1990 national elections but were prevented from taking power by the military.
''The stated purpose of conscription or national service is to teach young people how to defend their country against an external foe,'' he says. ''But in forced labor, you are forced to do a job without pay.''
Mr. Pillai argues that the pipeline will be a big boost for Burma, earning the government an estimated $400 million in foreign exchange. ''That will have a very positive impact on the economy,'' he says.
Similar projects may be in the works. Arco signed a natural-gas exploration contract with Burma on July 26.
Other oil companies are reportedly interested in the country's rich oil and gas deposits. But Winn calls on the oil companies to boycott Burma and for Unocal to suspend operations. He says whatever money is earned from pipeline revenues will not benefit the people of Burma.
''The Army buys a lot of arms,'' Winn says. ''They enlarge their Army. There is no positive development coming from this investment.''