Burma/Myanmar, has been under military rule in various forms since 1962. In 1988, a group of 19 military officers—first called the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and later called the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC)—took control of the country. (This group also changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar; some opposition leaders have not accepted this name change and continue to refer to the country as Burma.) This military “junta” exercises absolute authority over the country; there is no independent legislature or judiciary, and the government oppresses all basic human rights. In recent years the government’s actions have gained international attention; for example, in 2007 the government violently suppressed a peaceful protest by a group of Buddhist monks, and in 2008 it turned back foreign aid workers who were attempting to respond to the devastation of Cyclone Nargis—a disaster that killed an estimated 138,000 people.
There was a relatively free and open election in 1990, where the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won 80% of the seats open for election, but the junta refused to recognize the results, and the leader of the NLD was put under house arrest for many years. The United States has imposed economic sanctions on Burma/Myanmar and called for the junta to recognize the results of the 1990 election. But the junta refuses to do so. Although elections are scheduled again for 2010, the junta has enacted strict laws that some say will bar many opposition leaders from participating in the elections.
Burma/Myanmar is a very natural resource-rich country, and the junta has grown rich exporting these resources—including oil, natural gas, jade, rubies, and teak. There has also recently been a huge amount of foreign investment—primarily from China. The junta estimated in 2008 that foreign companies had invested US$15 billion over the previous 20 years. Yet Burma remains one of the poorest countries in the world: per capita income was estimated at about US$290 in 2008, health care is among the worst in the world, many families cannot afford even primary school education, and some estimate that as many as 35% of children under the age of 5 are malnourished.
One of the main attractions for foreign investors is the completely controlled labor force: the government quickly ends strikes and demonstrations. Additionally, unchecked mining and deforestation have led to extinction of species and huge environmental degradation. The movie Total Denial shows the impact of foreign investment on the people and environment of Burma/Myanmar.
The film introduces us to Ka Hsaw Wa, a human rights activist from the Karen ethnic group in Burma/Myanmar. He has been living in exile in the U.S. for over 15 years—since his participation in a pro-democracy student protest in 1988—and can only go back to Burma/Myanmar by sneaking in through the Thai border. (In fact, Ka Hsaw Wa, or the White Elephant, is an alias that he uses to protect his family still living in Burma/Myanmar.) Much of his work has focused on the impact of a natural gas pipeline built by a partnership between the French company Total and the U.S. company Unocal. The pipeline begins in the Andaman Sea, then cuts through the Karen people’s land in Burma/Myanmar into Thailand. In order to build the pipeline, Total and Unocal allegedly partnered with the military junta to secure the area around the pipeline. The film shows the horrors of burning villages and murdered women and children as the military forcibly removed the Karen people from their land.
The film also shows the efforts of Ka Hsaw Wa and his wife Katie Redford—through an organization they founded, called EarthRights International—to make these companies answer for the human rights abuses that occurred during the pipeline construction by bringing a unique lawsuit in the U.S. The suit was brought using an old U.S. statute called the Alien Torts Claims Act. This statute was originally passed in 1789, but had only been successfully used twice before the 1980s, when a group of human rights lawyers discovered that it could be used to sue individuals and corporations that commit human rights abuses in other countries.
There is a successful ending to the lawsuit in the movie, but the military junta in Burma/Myanmar continues to ignore basic human rights. We encourage you to learn more about human rights abuses in Burma/Myanmar, and about how corporations abuse human rights not only in Taiwan (www.corpwatch.org) but also around the world. EarthRights International’s website (www.earthrights.org) has information about the Yadana pipeline case, as well as projects it is working on in other countries and its efforts to protect the Alien Torts Claims Act from attacks by corporations who do not want to be sued for their activities in other countries. The Slingshot Development Fund (www.slingshotdf.org) was created to support projects that benefit the people of Burma, and specifically people affected by the Yadana pipeline. And the Taiwan Free Burma Network has information on its blog (tasskn.blogspot.com) about how to support human rights in Burma/Myanmar.
The Environmental Jurists Association is pleased to partner with Wild at Heart Legal Defense Association Taiwan in bringing this film to the Taiwan audience.