Thai Leader OKs Controversial Gas Pipeline

From The Associated Press

Thailand's prime minister has ordered the completion of a natural gas pipeline between Thailand and Burma, long stalled by human rights and environmental groups, newspapers reported Sunday.

Premier Chuan Leekpai halted work on the project after protests by environmental activists, who say the pipeline will destroy areas of Thailand's remaining virgin forest and endanger wildlife. Some have been camping out in the forest for two months to block construction.

The pipeline has also met opposition from human rights groups here and abroad who say the Burmese section is being built with forced labor.

"I have decided that the project must continue. I don't have the right to stop it," Chuan was quoted as saying following an inspection trip to the construction site in Thailand's western border province of Kanchanaburi.

"The pipeline must continue. Whoever wants to stay in the forest is free to do so," he said.

The $1-billion pipeline, a joint venture among U.S.-based Unocal Corp., France's Total, the Petroleum Authority of Thailand and Burma's military regime, will carry natural gas from Burma's Gulf of Martaban to a power plant in Thailand.

Activists have filed a class-action lawsuit in California against El Segundo-based Unocal, and there have been demonstrations at Total's headquarters in France.

While admitting that human rights abuses exist in Burma, both companies deny slave labor has been used to build the pipeline.

Following the protests, the Thai government appointed a panel headed by former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun to investigate the project. Last week it concluded that the Petroleum Authority of Thailand was not transparent in its dealings and recommended the government act to alleviate the social and environmental effects of the project.

Chuan said various agencies would look into the panel's observations but decided that the project should continue.

After Chuan's announcement, the activists who had camped out in the forest prepared to end their protest.

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