Out of Burma
Grassroots Activism Forces
Multinationals to End Ties
with the Burmese Dictatorship
by Jeff Shaw
Multinational Monitor, January/February
In Burma, 50 million people live under
a brutal veil of government surveillance and violence. The Burmese
population, the vast majority of whom voted overwhelmingly for
democracy a decade ago, live under the thumb of one of the most
repressive governments on the planet.
The brutality of the ruling military junta,
the elegance of the Burmese democratic movement and the strategic
savvy of an international solidarity movement have spurred a multinational
corporate procession out of the country, and away from support
for or association with the governing dictatorship.
The economic and financial pressure on
the regime represents one of the most successful international
pressure campaigns ever run.
"If it's not the most successful,
it's pretty darn close," says Jeremy Woodrum of the U.S.
Campaign for Burma. Woodrum has been working as part of the Burmese
solidarity movement for the better part of a decade.
Grassroots activists have pressured approximately
90 corporations to cut investment or trade ties to the Burmese
dictatorship. Largely due to campaigns led by a committed international
cadre of pro-democracy activists, Burma's brutal regime is an
Burma's military government is consistently
ranked as one of the worst human rights violators in the world.
The corrupt government oversees the devastation of the country's
environment, notably through unchecked illegal logging. It suppresses
democratic opposition, assaults religious freedom, and brutally
cracks down on ethnic minorities in order to maintain power. The
military uses mass rape as a weapon, has banned union organizing
and employs widespread forced labor, including child labor, to
carry out projects to generate cash for the ruling generals' lavish
lifestyle. The country is also one of the world's most prolific
producers of opiate drugs.
The military has exerted control over
most everything about the country, even going so far as to rename
the country (now officially called "Myanmar") and the
regime itself. First called the State Law and Order Restoration
Council (which created the ominous acronym SLORC), the Burmese
junta now refers to itself by the sanitized moniker "State
Peace and Development Council" (SPDC).
But peace is not high on the generals'
agenda; the then-SLORC slaughtered thousands of pro-democracy
student demonstrators in 1988. When the country overwhelmingly
voted for a democratic government a few years later, the military
refused to recognize the results. The leader of the opposition
party, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, remains under
That "the facts on the ground were
so damning" has greatly eased the task of organizing opposition
to the regime, says Larry Dohrs, a veteran Burma activist who
now serves as vice president of the Seattle-based Newground Investment
Services, a socially responsible investment firm. U.S. activists
can simply point to annual U.S. State Department human rights
reports, as well as human rights organizations' voluminous documentation,
to reveal the tragedy of dictatorship in Burma.
Facing such overwhelming opposition, domestically
and internationally, the dictatorship stays afloat by reliance
on raw military force. But that military power is dependent on
a flow of capital into the country.
THE CORPORATE CONNECTION
Foreign investment is of pivotal importance
to the SPDC, says Dohrs.
"The regime has very few sources
of income," Woodrum adds. "The only way the regime can
continue to stay in power is to continue foreign investment and
trade; that's how they pay their military."
Activists have thus worked to staunch
the flow of money into the country.
While their long-term goals have always
included federal legislation banning imports from and investment
in Burma, U.S. activists have viewed applying direct pressure
on individual corporations doing business with Burma as a key
element of denying the dictatorship its economic lifeblood.
Suu Kyi has herself called for activists
working internationally to adopt this strategy.
And it's worked. Dozens of major corporations
have pulled out of Burma entirely, at times abandoning multi-million
dollar investments. Activists have successfully targeted major
U.S. investors like Arco and Texaco (now merged into ChevronTexaco),
preventing these firms from supplying financial fuel to the SPDC.
Grassroots groups have worked as well
to pressure companies to stop importing products, especially textiles,
from Burma. In response to activist pressure, apparel companies
like Perry Ellis, Kenneth Cole, The Children's Place and Jones
New York have cut off imports; and the American Apparel &
Footwear Association, a national trade association, issued a strongly
worded statement in favor of sanctions against Burma in 2003.
ISOLATING THE DICTATORSHIP
These achievements mark the Burmese solidarity
movement as the most powerful boycott and divestment campaign
since the anti-apartheid effort of the 1980s. Why has it been
so successful at making demands on corporations?
Part of the answer lies in the military
government's appalling record.
"The Burmese regime is so brutal,"
says Woodrum, "every time it starts to seem that they're
turning around, they do something worse. That's been very well
publicized by human rights groups."
Another reason is the vibrant pro-democracy
movement inside the country that is calling for international
pressure. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, which won over
80 percent of parliament seats in the 1990 elections, is extremely
popular. "That serves to unite opinion regarding policy and
practice toward the country," Woodrum says.
The presence of a powerful figure like
Suu Kyi helps focus international pressure, too. It helps when
a charismatic individual can embody a struggle, and the Nobel
Peace Prize winner's high-profile has bolstered sentiment against
The movement has been aided as well by
the low level of involvement in the country of most multinationals.
With a few vital exceptions, most multinationals have maintained
minimal investments in the country or have imported from Burma
only on a small scale. For most firms, it is not worth the hassle
of remaining in the country, if a Burma connection will tar their
reputation internationally, especially with consumers.
But the movement has helped itself, too.
Lean and nimble, it has masterfully staked out targets and deployed
focused pressure to convince companies to reassess the merits
and value of their Burma ties.
Well-planned Internet organizing has helped
keep the activists one step ahead of the game, providing fast
and effective networking.
The Internet "made it easier for
grassroots campaigners to communicate with each other quickly,"
"The Free Burma Movement, especially
in the early years, was very Internet focused," agrees Dohrs.
"It was the perfect way to create an activist community."
Since the movement was driven by a dedicated
core of people-almost all volunteers-living in different areas
across the country, e-mail and a web presence helped provide information,
coordinate logistics and maintain support for the effort.
With strong organization and powerful
facts at their disposal, a relatively small number of people have
been able to make a big difference.
"If you have eight to 10 people on
the ground [in a given community], and they're committed and their
arguments are good, that's plenty," says Dohrs.
The presence of Burmese exiles in the
United States has also been essential. They have helped put a
human face on the trauma suffered in the country across the sea.
"Having the participation of Burmese
people is always critical," Dohrs maintains, "because
they have the credibility of those who have lived through this."
The presence of someone who has felt the impact of the regime
firsthand, or who has family that have done so, adds to emotional
weight of the arguments put forth by solidarity activists.
It is a testament to the movement's momentum
that success continued even after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned
Massachusetts' "Burma Law," a flagship statute which
prohibited companies doing business with the state from doing
business in Burma or trading with the military junta.
The law, passed in 1996 at the behest
of activists, was a landmark in human rights legislation. It frightened
a broad swath of the business community, which was much less concerned
about the Massachusetts penalty for doing business with Burma
than with the prospect that the Massachusetts law would serve
as a model for other states, on a range of issues. Denying state
contracts to corporations is a powerful lever.
In response, a coalition of corporations
challenged the law as an unconstitutional infringement on the
federal government's exclusive right to conduct foreign policy.
The case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which
agreed with the corporate challenge to the law and invalidated
Having the law struck down "was a
huge blow," says Woodrum. The strategy of Burma campaigners
had been to use grassroots power to bring pressure on the regime.
Working through cities, localities and state governments to penalize
companies doing business in Burma was a critical element of this
"The law being struck down made it
more difficult to target multinational corporations," says
It wasn't a devastating blow, though,
because activists have made doing business with Burma a public
relations nightmare for companies. Plus, after being challenged
by the Supreme Court to change federal policy, the activists did
Their efforts culminated in legislation
passed by the U.S. Congress at the end of last summer, banning
all imports from Burma. Free Burma groups had backed that sanctions
legislation from the beginning. The Burmese Freedom and Democracy
Act of 2003 passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, clearing
the House of Representatives by a vote of 418-2 and the Senate
by a 97-1 count.
UNOCAL'S PIPELINE AND THE GENERALS
Challenges remain afoot, though, particularly
as regards petroleum giant Unocal. Unocal has invested hundreds
of millions of dollars to build an extremely controversial natural
gas pipeline from Burma to Thailand. The company's investment
in the pipeline has helped prop up the regime, charge Burmese
democracy activists and the international solidarity effort, and
the revenues that will flow to the government when the project
is completed will help the isolated dictatorship maintain its
power. Activities associated with construction of the pipeline
have involved widespread human rights violations, including the
systematic use of forced labor and displacement of thousands of
villagers, according to human rights organizations.
But despite an intensive grassroots campaign,
Unocal has refused to withdraw from Burma. For years, it has made
the apparent calculation that the ultimate rewards from the Burma
project outweigh the severe reputational harm it has suffered
from its association with the Burmese military dictatorship. In
1997, Unocal sold off its retail sales arm, immunizing it from
direct consumer pressure and making it much more difficult for
grassroots campaigners to rattle the company's bottom line.
"By not operating a retail chain,
they've insulated themselves from retail pressure," says
Additionally, backroom deals have benefited
the powerful multinational. Most significantly, a 1997 ban on
new investment in Burma, passed by the Clinton Administration,
exempted Unocal through a grandfather clause.
For now, the primary pressure on Unocal
is coming from two civil suits in U.S. courts. A group of Burmese
plaintiffs are suing the company in federal court in California,
alleging that they were subjected to forced labor and violence
while working on the corporation's natural gas project in Burma.
The suits are "very important, not
just for the Burmese people, but for the plaintiffs, who suffered
greatly," says Woodrum.
The suits charge a conspiracy between
SLORC and its petrochemical partners, Unocal and the French oil
giant Total, that has caused human rights violations, including
coerced labor, the forced removal of villagers, murder, rape and
other torture, during construction of the pipeline.
While the U.S. sanctions legislation was
a huge win, it must be renewed annually. Also, the sanctions effort
"needs to be more international," says Woodrum. Thus,
future tactics will focus on the European Union and a continuing
campaign against Total.
The U.S. sanctions are important as a
blanket mechanism to stop, with one move, all U.S. companies from
propping up the SPDC through trade. But, a globalized economy
means eternal vigilance for activists, as companies seek loopholes
and shields for illegal activities.
A case in point came to light in January,
when Swift, a Belgian conglomeration of international banks-including
U.S. firms Citibank and J.P. Morgan-began establishing accounts
for the SPDC as a means of converting the junta's currency into
the EU's currency, the euro. This would be a very important boon
to the regime, since no trading partner wants the Burmese kyat,
and the U.S. sanctions preclude the regime from trading in dollars.
Should the Swift maneuver prove successful,
the resultant Europeanizing of currency would provide a major
boost to the SPDC's efforts to carry out and expand its international
trade-and thus sustain itself. The fact that U.S. companies are
participating despite the sanctions especially vexes Burma campaign
"If they're not breaking the law,"
Woodrum says, "they're certainly undermining the spirit of
what was passed. "
They are also sure to face a vocal and
Jeff Shaw is a Journalist based in Washington