DAMINSEIK, Myanmar -- When the big white company helicopter settled onto the sand here on the shore of the Andaman Sea recently, almost the entire fishing village hurried out to watch.
This is where a 416-mile natural gas pipeline will rise from deep under the ocean and begin to tunnel through the jungle into Thailand in the most ambitious -- and most disputed -- building project in this country.
Jumping from the helicopter, oil company officials led a group of journalists directly to the village's new schoolhouse, part of an economic development program that ensures cooperation of the villagers and thus is as important to the project as the airfield, dock, roads and bridges that have been carved out of the remote jungle.
The $1 billion pipeline project, being undertaken by Total of France with a major investment by Unocal Corp. of the United States, represents by far the largest foreign investment in Myanmar, formerly Burma.
As such, it has become the target of intense lobbying by human rights groups that oppose the country's military government.
These groups say the military used forced labor and forcibly relocated entire villages as it secured the pipeline route, and they are demanding that the oil companies pull out of a country that is in the grip of a repressive junta.
As tensions continue to rise in the capital, Yangon, with government pressure mounting against the leader of the democratic opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi, the pressure on the oil companies has risen as well.
The pipeline has become the focus in the debate over whether foreign companies should do business in Myanmar and whether the United States should impose economic sanctions on the country.
In recent months, critics have raised challenges at shareholders' meetings of both companies, staged demonstrations at Unocal headquarters in Southern California and filed two lawsuits in the United States that allege human rights abuses on the project.
As they toured the pipeline, company officials said the criticisms were inaccurate and unfair.
They are simply oilmen, the officials said, and should not be held accountable for the behavior of their host country.
"Unocal has been thrust into center stage in this drama, and it is not a part we set out to play," said Carol Scott, a spokeswoman for the company, which is based in El Segundo, Calif.
"It is rather shocking, and we are stunned that people believe some of the things that are written."
By mid-1998 the three-foot-diameter pipe is scheduled to begin carrying gas from the underwater Yadana field 215 miles to its landfall here in Daminseik, then 39 miles through the jungle to the Thai border.
From there, a 161-mile extension to be built by the Thais will carry the gas to a power plant near Bangkok, where it is to produce much-needed electricity over the next 30 years.
Thailand will pay $400 million a year for the gas, half of which will go to the government of Myanmar and half to the oil companies.
In addition, about 22 percent of the gas is go to the domestic market in Myanmar, said Herve Madeo, who is the project manager and Total's general manager for Myanmar.
He said it would be at least five years before the pipeline became profitable.
Total has a 31 percent interest in the project, and Unocal has a 28 percent interest. Thailand has a 26 percent interest, and the government oil company in Myanmar 15 percent.
The tour of the pipeline, in which the helicopter hopped among some of the villages and construction sites along the route, found no signs of abuses by the oil companies themselves.
But it did not lay to rest the main accusations of the human rights groups.
Indeed, Madeo acknowledged that there had been at least some instances of forced labor by the military and said the company had reimbursed the villagers involved.
A U.S. Embassy report issued in July said that forced labor was common in Myanmar.
"The military continued to force ordinary Burmese on a massive scale (including women and children) to 'contribute' their labor, often under harsh working conditions, on construction projects around the country," the report said.
But Madeo said: "I can assure you that within the pipeline area this is not done.
"A lot of people, I don't know for what reason, are telling lies."
On the larger question of whether foreign companies should do business with the military government, another Unocal spokesman, David Garcia, said politics should not be an issue for big international corporations.
The fate of Aung San Suu Kyi and the human rights record of the government are not appropriate concerns of a company that is simply piping natural gas through the jungle, he said.
"What you are asking us to do is determine the legitimacy of a government," he said.
"That is the job of international diplomacy, of the United Nations and so on.
"International companies cannot afford to assume that mantle, and we will not."
Pub Date: 12/08/96