Free Burma Movement Regains Momentum after Court Decision

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On June 19, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Massachusetts Burma Law. While this ruling is a setback for Free Burma advocates, it is not a fatal blow to the movement. The decision in fact sets the stage for renewed advocacy at local, state and federal levels.

The situation in Burma is grim. The Burmese military junta annulled the 1990 elections in which the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, won more than 80 percent of parliamentary seats. The junta has since cracked down on the NLD and other pro-democracy parties and has kept Aung San Suu Kyi under virtual house arrest, refusing to consider a dialogue. Human rights abuses by the Burmese army are particularly marked in the border areas populated by Burma's indigenous ethnic minorities. The International Labor Organization has all but expelled Burma because of the regime's systematic and pervasive use of forced labor.

Emphasizing that foreign corporate investment in Burma primarily benefits the military elite, Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly called on the international community to impose economic sanctions on Burma. Almost all current foreign investment is in joint ventures either with the junta or with the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEH), which is jointly owned by military officers and the army's Directorate of Procurement.

Inspired by the successful campaign against Apartheid in South Africa, Free Burma advocates have conducted a campaign of consumer boycotts, demonstrations and shareholder pressure against companies such as Unocal, TotalFinaElf, and Suzuki that do business with the Burmese military junta. State and local selective purchasing laws have been a key campaign tool. Modeled on similar South Africa-related legislation, these laws effectively bar cities and states from buying goods or services from companies doing business in Burma.

In June 1996, Massachusetts joined several cities (including Oakland and San Francisco) in enacting such a law. By the end of the year, Apple Computer, Eastman Kodak, Hewlett Packard, Obayashi, and Philips Electronics withdrew from Burma. In January 1997, the backlash began. The European Commission (EC) and Japan challenged the Massachusetts Burma Law at the World Trade Organization (WTO)-- the first and only time that a U. S. state law has been taken to the WTO. The EC and Japan cited provisions of the WTO Agreement on Government Procurement that bar governments from using "non- economic" criteria in procurement decisions.

In April 1998, the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), an association of major U.S. multinational corporations, took Massachusetts to U.S. federal court. Citing the challenge at the WTO, the NFTC argued that the Massachusetts Burma Law unconstitutionally infringed on the power of Congress to regulate foreign trade and the power of the federal government to conduct foreign policy. Massachusetts responded that it has a right -- just as any consumer has a right -- not to do business with companies supporting dictators.

The case reached the Supreme Court and in June the Court issued a unanimous decision. The Court decided that existing federal sanctions on Burma preempted the Massachusetts Burma Law, but did not rule on the broad question of whether state and local selective purchasing laws per se infringed on executive and legislative powers.

Because the ruling was so narrow, considerable scope remains for selective purchasing laws. Cities can still take action to divest themselves from companies doing business in Burma, or stay invested and support resolutions by shareholders asking companies to withdraw from Burma. There are no legal barriers to resolutions urging Congress to authorize explicitly local selective purchasing laws or to enact tougher federal sanctions on Burma. A campaign supporting this type of resolution could well incite a fresh spate of grassroots action.

State and local laws are not the only tool available to the Free Burma movement. Companies in Burma continue to face demonstrations, consumer boycotts, shareholder resolutions, and critical media coverage. Becuase of a recent consumer boycott, Best Western decided to withdraw from Burma. The Free Burma Coalition (www.freeburmacoalition.org) is now focusing its efforts on a campaign aimed at Suzuki. Until the military junta reaches a settlement with the Burmese democracy movement, the Free Burma movement will be a barrier to corporate investment in Burma.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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