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Burma’s “White Elephant”

By Christian Avard | Special to the Vermont Guardian

Posted November 10, 2006

BRATTLEBORO — He is one of the most wanted men in Burma. But many ordinary Burmese see him as a hero.

In the Po Karen language, Ka Hsaw Wa means “white elephant” and for the Karen, the white elephant is a sign of hope.

Ka Hsaw Wa witnessed first hand how the Burmese military enslaved the Karen and other indigenous groups to construct a natural gas pipeline for Unocal. Ka Hsaw Wa and his wife Katie Redford sued Unocal under the Alien Torts Claims Act in a landmark human rights case. In 2004, Unocal settled out of court.

Due to his activism, he has been awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize, Reebok Human Rights Award, Whitley Fund for Nature/Sting and Trudie Styler Award for Human Rights and the Environment, and the Conde Nast Environmental Award for his work in defense of human rights and the environment.

He will receive a Masters of Arts in Service, Leadership, and Management from the School for International Training in Brattleboro this week, and the Vermont Guardian sat down with him to talk about EarthRights International, Doe v. Unocal, and social change.

VG: I know that EarthRights International [ERI] was one of the main litigators in Doe v. Unocal. Describe what that case was and elaborate a little more on what your role was in terms of collecting data, among other things.
Ka Hsaw Wa: When I saw the suffering of the people in Burma, I talked with my wife Katie about what I saw and thought maybe we could help with some legal support. So, I tried to be a liaison between those people who created a network between the Po Karen and our lawyers. I interviewed those who were being abused by the Burmese military and I told those stories to the lawyers in the United States.
The lawsuit was about a U.S. corporation that aided and abetted the notorious military dictatorship in Burma in the violation of human rights. And they thought that because they are dealing with the military dictatorship, they thought nobody was going to hear anything and they can only focus on their bottom line benefit.
But my role was what I saw those suffering and saw everything and I came and met with Katie in Thailand and we saw that was illegal and there should be a way to hold them accountable. We contacted more experienced lawyers and brought the case to the United States using the Alien Torts Claims Act, which was a very old law that can be used by people whose rights were violated abroad. So we looked at that and we knew we could do something and since then, we’ve helped them.

VG: What has happened since to ERI, and the Po Karen. Is there any new information on the case?
Ka Hsaw Wa: After they had settled with our demands, we are now working on the fund that’s going to deliver to the people who suffered from the pipeline region.
The funny thing is after Unocal settled, they thought they could get the money from their insurance company to fund the settlement. But the insurance company said no. So now the funny thing is Unocal is now suing the insurance company to pay off the settlement. Then, the insurance companies called and asked me testify and help them out. So it’s kind of funny because they thought they could get all the money they lost from the insurance company. And fortunately they can’t get it.

VG: I know you’ve been on the front lines of pushing for social change for most of your life and based on your experiences what would you say are the most effective means for implementing social change in people’s lives and in their communities?
Ka Hsaw Wa: For me, diversity is the most important thing. That is what my capstone is all about because I wasn’t ready for it for a long time. I used to stereotype post modernism and all that crap but seriously, I learned that if you use diversity in a really beautiful way, it’s really helpful for me to change and for my work. The most important is to respect abilities for every person, to try and learn about every person, to respect their passion and motivation and use it in a way that everybody can benefit.
At ERI, the most important thing is diversity and respect about who can do what and to do the best way and be able to read our organization, mission, and vision from the indigenous people to people of United States because in particular our organization we have indigenous people and ethnic people and at the same time have a lot people that’s super highly educated in the Western world.
So, the gap is extremely huge but at the same time we have a different way of understanding experiences and when we put these things together it’s the most beautiful thing.

VG: What do you think is the most important thing people should walk away with in terms of your life, your work, and your experiences that will benefit others?
Ka Hsaw Wa: The most important thing is to internalize social change because social change is not time to play games. A lot of time people think, “Oh, I’m a good person and I’m going to be a do gooder,” and then they get into the field and they can’t take it. A lot of the time in my perspective, people try to do social change as a last resort or they have a passion but see it as a profession, or a business, or their living. What I’m saying is internalize it, learn, and ask yourself, “Why I’m here?”
For me it’s about giving individuals who have no rights or opportunities to have their voice heard.

For more information about ERI, visit their website at