In the end, the push for sanctions against the rogue government of Burma came down to a face-to-face City Hall encounter this week between Councilman Nate Holden and an oil company lobbyist.
If Holden gave the word, the matter of sanctions would leave his committee to be voted on by the entire City Council. Across from him was high-paid lobbyist Jack Rafuse, representing the Unocal oil company and, by logical extension, the dictators in Burma. Rafuse hoped to persuade Holden to persist in keeping sanctions bottled up in his committee. Rafuse turned out the loser, but not before some relatively high drama and distortion.
The formerly L.A.-based Unocal, now headquartered in Malaysia, has lobbied extensively against sanctions - as it has in other cities - so it was no surprise to see Rafuse at the meeting of Holden's Intergovernmental Relations Committee. Unocal has no current contracts with the city, but is determined to hold the line in its war with Burmese activists. Unocal recently completed construction of a $1.2 billion gas pipeline in Burma in partnership with the Burmese military, which would bring in an estimated $400 million a for Burma's cash-strapped drug-trafficking generals.
Although more than half of the 40-some people in the meeting room opposed the Burma regime, they might as well have been in Burma, for all the heed that Rafuse paid to them. Rafuse was there for the only council member present - Holden -- because his decision alone would determine whether sanctions moved on to the full City Council.
In all, Rafuse held the floor for about an hour, painting a picture of the pipeline project that is at odds with the testimony of witnesses and reports by the U.S. government and human rights groups.
Unocal never, ever used slave labor on the pipeline, said Rafuse, contradicting both the deposition of Unocal president John Imle and admissions of Unocal's French partner Total. He's also contradicted by first-hand accounts documented by groups such as Amnesty International and Physicians for Human Rights.
Rafuse also insisted that the Burmese regime never, ever "displaced" entire villages to make way for the pipeline. But activists countered that the pipeline region has become almost totally uninhabited thanks to the Burmese military. A report released last month by the U.S. Department of Labor stated that, "Several villages close to the pipeline were ordered to relocate and their residents either fled to refugee camps or complied."
And on it went. In a similar vein, Rafuse inaccurately asserted that anyone can visit the pipeline site at any time. He also suggested that "constructive engagement" will persuade the military to change its ways.
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Not so, according to the earlier testimony of Rick Latham, an official with the International Federation of Free Trade Unions. "The reality is that by doing business with the dictators that rule Burma, U.S. companies are helping to finance the world's largest concentration camp."
In a non-sequitur reach for goodwill, Rafuse assured Holden that Unocal deserved the benefit of the doubt because Unocal is responsible for "cleaning up the air in L.A." Given that Unocal used to operate refineries here, that assertion left many in the room scratching their heads.
Rafuse dismissed the recent damning report on Burma by the Labor Department as "a disgrace and a sham," although, at the hearing, that description was applied mostly to his own performance.
Still, though he faced a hostile crowd, he kept his composure until after the hearing - when a reporter questioned one of his doubtful assertions. "What kind of reporter are you?" he snapped. "Did you just walk in here off the street? Go look at our website!" he said, stomping off angrily.