After initial condemnations, Burma’s neighbors and trading partners have reignited a paralyzing and disingenuous debate on sanctions. The old arguments are being brought out and dusted off. Yes, we are “repulsed,” Burma’s neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) say, but we question the effectiveness of sanctions. Academics and pundits too have tried to break the concensus on sanctioning one of the world’s worst human rights violators. Burma is already isolated, they say. More sanctions will only mean more suffering for the Burmese people. What’s worse, they say, sanctions haven’t worked.

That imperfect sanctions have worked imperfectly is hardly an argument for weakening them. But that’s just logic. When huge sums of money are involved, and lucrative gas and oil deals, if my logic contradicts your logic, then we can agree to disagree, right? The logics cancel each other out?

Opening this weekend in New York and Los Angeles for a very short run is a film that demolishes arguments for engagement, using well-documented firsthand narratives right from Asia’s ground zero. Milena Kaneva’s Total Denial is the story of 15 Burmese “John Doe” plaintiffs who are suing the U.S. oil company Unocal for complicity in human rights abuses. (Unocal has been bought by Chevron so the two rightfully get conflated by activists.)

The case, John Doe v Unocal, applies the obscure 1789 Alien Tort Claims Act (ACTA), which allows foreigners to sue U.S. companies or agencies for bad behavior overseas if the decisions that led to that behavior were made in the U.S. In this case, the bad behavior was partnering with the government of Burma on an oil pipeline, called the Yadana Pipeline, knowing the government was using forced labor and slavery, murder, rape, torture, eviction and widespread theft of property to “secure” the project.

The film also tells the story of Ka Hsaw Wa, from Burma’s Karen ethnic minority group. Like many of Burma’s ethnic minorities, the Karen have been fighting the Burmese dictators for decades. Ka Hsaw Wa was under enormous pressure from family members to join the armed struggle. He resisted, preferring to document human rights abuses, he said. He asked his relatives to buy him tape recorders, pens and notepads, instead of guns. He was essentially disowned. When the student-led democracy movement began to unfold in the late 1980s Ka Hsaw Wa worked among them. On August 8, 1988, he watched the military open fire on his fellow students and organizers. Ordinary Burmese from all walks of life, even from the Navy, the police, were among them, shouting, “This is our business!” [By which they meant, running the country.] The disenfranchisement and atrocities that followed are well known.

Hailed in the film as a hero by Kerry Kennedy, who put him in her book Speak Truth to Power beside the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., Ka Hsaw Wa was tortured for three days but he remained committed to non-violence. Eventually he met Katherine Redford, a volunteer English teacher in neighboring Thailand, later a law student who became his wife; Redford had wanted to document the human rights violations associated with logging in Burma, and everyone told her she had to meet Ka Hsaw Wa. A pretty powerful duo was formed. After learning more about the region, Redford wrote a paper for her law school arguing that oil companies doing business in Burma shoud be sued. Her professors told her it couldn’t be done.

“I respect your opinion,” she tells them. “But I disagree.”

She then put together a team of human rights lawyers who had been looking for a case to use the ATCA on. The first hearings argued whether the case could go forward; powerful attacks on the law came from on high, including from the Bush administration. The case dragged on nearly a decade. Witnesses had to be depositioned from the jungles of Burma, which meant sending Ka Hsaw Wa there, tapping his language skills, his knowledge of the jungle, of the culture, of the movement of the Burmese military throughout the region and the border guards. In a word, it was totally unprecedented. Yet not unnoticed. After the New York screening on Saturday, Kaneva told an audience that similiar cases are being brought around the world, including in Belgium against the French oil giant Total, the majority shareholder in the pipeline project which lends the film its name.

Though this particular case–and the documentary–are mainly about Unocal (since the statute is an American one), the film is more broadly about corporations who pretend their projects overseas are apolitical. Partnering with greedy government enablers, they find themselves complicit in a confederacy of atrocities that the film documents through depositions, photographs (some quite gruesome), confessions by defected Burmese soldiers, interviews with victims (including one story of a woman’s newborn being kicked into a burning fire) and with rare footage of human slavery taking place; a road is being built for the pipeline–rocks smashed and hauled by children, women, elderly.

There are emotions in this film that rarely appear in opinion journals or op-eds, or Congressional testimony: Karen children singing a dirge, another group singing a hymn (many Karen are Christian converts; if the junta will kill its own Buddhist clergy, imagine what it does to Christians); there are mothers and aunts describing being chased from villages to make way for the project, saying they never saw white people or soldiers there before the pipeline came; little girls in schools describe the army shooting their dads; and the intensity in their eyes, that argument has not made its way into the debate on sanctions. But its day has arrived. The film is, incidentally, beautifully made.

Kaneva does much of her work through cuts: from these traumatized witnesses to a lawyer in Los Angeles saying with a straight face that they are lying, that the scars on their bodies and the tears in their eyes are fabrications for money, for their political cause, perhaps merely to bring attention to the wider atrocities in Burma. From the lawyer to a woman washing clothes, the rainfall spattering the river, the landscapes now haunted with the ghosts of the dead. In a Michael Moore-like ambush Kaneva surprises shareholders entering a meeting of Total oil and asks one man if he minds dealing with Burma, which she continually calls genocidal. “Unfortunately, there are genocides going on in other places and if we don’t do it,” he tells her, “the Americans will.”

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog here seizing the opportunity to praise President Bush; his wife has got him saying the right things about Burma, and I was moved. His statements on Burma resonated with emotions that seemed human rather than corporate. Like the children interviewed in the film, he wasn’t acting. But the Burma activists in New York Saturday after the screening point out that the Yadana Pipeline project of Total and Unocal is the single biggest source of revenue for the Burmese dictators. While U.S. sanctions on Burma are the world’s tightest, Unocal was grandfathered in, i.e. allowed to stay as a company doing business before sanctions (which is what made them so valuable to Chevron).

This week, Congress begins hearings on Chevron’s role in Burma’s atrocities. So the film’s timing is auspicious. I urge you to see this film this week, to meet Ka Hsaw Wa and Katie Redford and the John Doe plaintiffs. (For those of you in New York, if the film does well through Monday night, Cinema Village might extend its New York run.) If it moves you to write to Congress, all the better. The people of Burma have waited for democracy for decades, have endured every humiliation, and have been imprisoned in what visitors have called a prison without walls. What do we owe people suffering under repressive governments–wars of “liberation” that aggravate ethnic and sectarian rivalries, or a consistent, multilateral policy of non-participation in the funding and enabling of the atrocities?

Total Denial opens in more cities in November.

–Joel Whitney

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