Belgium reopens Myanmar probe against Total


BRUSSELS — French oil giant Total on Tuesday faced a renewed Belgian probe into its alleged support of Myanmar’s military regime as authorities reopened an investigation into the firm.

Belgium authorities are reopening a case brought by Myanmar refugees that Total was involved in crimes against humanity in their country, the refugees’ lawyer said. Four refugees accuse the company of having used forced labor provided by the military regime to build a gas pipeline, according to lawyer Alexis Deswaef.

Authorities are also to reopen an investigation into possible crimes against humanity targeting the regime, he said.

In a consortium with the Myanmar’s national oil company and U.S. group Unocal, now part of Chevron, Total built a pipeline in the 1990s to transport gas from fields in Myanmar to Thai power plants in neighboring Thailand.

The four refugees accuse Total of having provided logistic and financial support in the 1990s to the military junta, which they hold responsible for forced labor, deportations murder, arbitrary executions and torture.

Total has also faced legal action in France against its labor practices in Myanmar, where it has operated since 1992.

But last year the group was cleared of charges in France that it relied on forced labor to build the US$1.2 billion gas pipeline after an out-of-court settlement with the alleged victims caused the prosecution’s case to collapse.

Deswaef said that the refugees had “refused the fat compensation Total was ready to pay them as it already did with other victims in France and Myanmar in exchange for calling off their cases.”

In Paris, Total declined to comment on the Belgian case other than by saying it had “taken note” that it had been reopened.

While the case is closed in France, it has continued to simmer in Belgium.

Belgium’s constitutional court ruled in 2005 that the refugees’ complaint, lodged in 2002, could be pursued, but last March another court ruled that the case should be dropped as the refugees were not Belgian.