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Burma: South Africa of the 1990's

Jonah; Orzech

The Southeast Asian country of Burma is a living version of George Orwell's 1984 a country where owning a fax machine or a modern without permission from the authorities will get you thrown in jail. It is a country ruled by one of the bloodiest and most repressive regions on the planet, a regime that-according to the United Nations - considers rape, torture, execution, or public dismemberment suitable tools for keeping its population in line. The 20 or more generals who rule Burma, or the State Law and Restoration Council (SLORC), have been so outrageous in their violations of basic human rights that even the Wall Street Journal refers to them as "thugs."

Burma is also a country with a legitimate, democratic alternative to SLORC. In 1990, the National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, won by a landslide with over 80% of the legislative seats. The military ignored the election results and kept Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for six years. Despite her release in 1995, the junta has restricted Aung San Suu Kyi's movements and imprisoned over 100 of her party members. The rest of the democratically elected legislators are either in exile, in prison, or have killed by the junta.

The democracy movement in Burma might seem hopeless. With the rallying cry "Burma-the South Africa of the Nineties," human rights activists all over the world have taken up the cause of restoring democracy in Burma. Their major weapon has been a non-violent one - economic pressure. Burma's military dominated economy is heavily dependent on foreign investment, both for buying arms to keep the regime in the power, and-according to a growing number of reports-as a way to launder drug profits. Aung San Suu Kyi has asked foreign countries not to invest in Burma until democracy is restored. In the last year, Burma activists around the world have managed to persuade a growing number of corporations to need her words. Boycotts and public opinion convinced many of these companies to cut their ties to Burma. For example, PepsiCo pulled out of Burma in January in response to a rapidly growing boycott of Pepsi on hundreds of college campuses and high schools.

Much of the credit for convincing corporations to withdraw their support of the Burmese generals is due to selective purchasing laws. Inspired by legislation passed during the campaign against apartheid in South Africa, these laws effectively bar local governments from buying goods or services from companies that do business in Burma. The first Burma selective purchasing law was passed in Berkeley, California, in February, 1995. Several other cities, including San Francisco, followed suit over the course of the next year. In June 1996, Massachusetts become the first state to pass a Burma selective purchasing law.

The impact of these laws was felt almost immediately. Motorola, Inc., found itself barred from a $40 million communications contract with the city of San Francisco and pulled out of Burma within months. Hewlett-Packard, apple Computer, Philips Electronics, and Eastman-Kodak, all fearing the loss of multi-million dollar contracts with the Massachusetts state government, withdrew form Burma shortly after the Massachusetts bill was signed.

These laws can clearly change the behavior of multinational corporations, but are powerful enough to actually bring about change in a foreign country? History says yes. In 1979, when the first local sanctions law on South Africa was enacted in Ann Arbor, Michigan, it was considered a purely symbolic gesture. No one actually believed that Ann Arbor, Michigan, would bring down apartheid. However, over the course of the next 14 years, 150 cities, counties, and schools districts, and 30 American states all passed South Africa-related laws. When Nelson Mandela was released after spending 27 years in South African of a new, democratic South Africa.

Even South African officials responsible for countering foreign sanctions attest to the to the selective purchasing laws. "Beyond and doubt (these) punitive measures significantly dictated the from, substance, timing and pace of change in South Africa," wrote Les De Villiers, a senior South African official under the apartheid regime, in the New York Times in May, 1994. "Notwithstanding strenuous arguments to the contrary-sanctions did work."

With control over billions of dollars in government spending, selective purchasing legislation wields the kind of power that makes companies - and countries - take notice. Perhaps this is why the Massachusetts law under attack from the European Commission (EC) and the Japanese Foreign Ministry. Companies such as Mitsubishi and the French oil company TOTAL have significant investments in Burma.

Claiming that treaties signed by the United States under the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) bar Massachusetts from making government procurement decision based on political issues, Japan and the EC have threatened to bring the measure before the World Trade Organization (WTO). The corporate conglomerates behind the Japanese and EC actions are not worried only by the Burma law, says Simon Billenness, a senior analyst at Franklin Research and Development Corporation in Boston. Billenness believes they are attempting to derail similar bills, such as one recently introduced in Massachusetts aimed at Suharto's military regime in Indonesia, where Japanese and European corporations are heavily invested.

Reaction to Japanese and European action has been swift and fierce. Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank wrote a letter, signed by all members of Massachusetts's house congressional delegation, to Japan's Prime Minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto, in which he started, "we do not believe it is appropriate for the government of Japan to involve itself in the internal affairs of Massachusetts. If the Japanese government chooses to places dollars ahead of human rights, it has that sovereign right, but Japan should not attempt to intimidate Massachusetts into changing the standards it has established for doing business with the state government." Frank added that "if more states were willing to place a high value on democracy and human rights as Massachusetts...undemocratic regimes such as the military government in Myanmar, would quickly disappear."

Judging from the response of Massachusetts' congressional delegation and the amount of press coverage the issue has generated, Japan and the EC's attempt to influence Massachusetts legislators may have backfired. The Burma purchasing bill was popular. It passed both houses of the Massachusetts legislature unanimously, and was supported by labor unions, politicians and trade watch groups concerned about free trade agreements that impinge on domestic rights.

However effective selective purchasing is, it is not the only means of applying pressure on the foreign companies who are propping up the Burmese regime. Lawsuits and shareholder resolutions are also being brought to bear. In September 1996, Burma's government -in-exile filed suit against Los Angeles based Unocal and France's TOTAL in U.S. Federal Court in Los Angeles. The lawsuit seeks to end Unocal's lead position in the construction of the Yadana natural gas pipeline in Burma, as well as compensatory damages for the deliberate destruction of many indigenous communities. The pipeline will ship natural gas from the waters south of Burma to Thailand. Once completed, the 250 mile pipeline will line the pockets of senior SLORC generals with some $400 million each year.

There has been strong opposition to the pipeline project inside Burma, including several armed attacks on it. The Burmese army maintains a heavily militarized security zone along the entire length of pipeline. Along with the presence of the Burmese military has come numerous human rights abuses, including forced labor on roads, railroads and other pipeline infrastructure, and the relocation of villages near the pipeline. Unocal and TOTAL have refused to allow independent human rights monitors to visit the pipeline corridor, although some visitors are welcome. Four Republican congressional representatives who visited Burma in December as guests of the oil companies, were reportedly given a tour of the pipeline site.

In addition to the lawsuits, Unocal will face a challenge this year at its annual meeting from its own employees, represented by the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) who have field a shareholder resolution. The resolution includes charges not only of forced labor ad other human rights abuses, but of laundering SLORC's illegal narcotics profits through the project.

As the steadily mounting pressure on western companies doing business in Burma takes its toll, more and more are pulling out. It's becoming increasingly difficult for these companies to swim against a growing current of public opinion. According to the London Daily Telegraph in a 1996 editorial, "foreign investors in Burma should feel ashamed of themselves."

While the regime in Burma seems firmly entrenched, Burma activists around the world look back the campaign against apartheid in South Africa and have no doubt that change will also come to Burma. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has pointed out: "Tough sanctions, not constructive engagement, finally brought the release of Nelson Mandela and the dawn of a new era in my country. This is the language that must be spoken with tyrants - for sadly, it is the only language they understand."

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.