[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index ][Thread Index ]

12/8/96 Boston Globe article

Dear Friends of Burma:

Please find below the text submitted to the Boston Globe by its
correspondent, Theo Emery. The text was edited by the Boston Globe and the
story ran, with some editing, on the front page of the Focus section of the
Sunday Boston Globe on December 8, 1996.

Other than correcting several spelling mistakes, I have made no changes to
the text emailed to me by Theo Emery.

I will mail copies of the article that ran in the Boston Globe upon request.

Simon Billenness
Franklin Research & Development
711 Atlantic Avenue, Boston, MA 02111
(617) 423-6655 x225
(617) 482-6179 fax

Boycotting Burma
by Theo Emery
Boston Globe Correspondent

        In the children's department at Macy's, Mickey Mouse enjoys a
prominent spot in the infant apparel section. Racks upons racks of clothing
display smiling Disney characters, but the mouse on the "Mickey & Co."
sweatshirt has a pensive expression, and perhaps with good reason. The
sweatshirt's label reads "Made in Burma," a nation whose dismal human
rights record have earned the condemnation of the United Nations, rights
organizations, nobel laureates, and just last week, President Clinton.  

       The Mickey sweatshirts are not only made in Burma, but also are
stitched at a Rangoon factory owned in large part by Myanmar Textile
Industries, a division of the Ministry of Industry in the governing
military junta.

       What once might have been simple stitches in a child's shirt has
become a tangled skein of foreign policy, corporate accountability, and
human rights activism in the global market. In the last year, as
international scrutiny focused on Burma's human rights abuses, the country
has become a labratory for advocates who have escalated sophisticated
campaigns to bring international sanctions to bear on the government.

        Indeed, although Massachusetts remains the only US state thus far
to officially shun business ties with Burma, more and more companies are
finding the cost of doing business there too high.

        The sewing machines will hum for Disney through the end of this
year; after that, there will be no more Disney apparel produced in Burma.
Chuck Mamiye, vice president of Mamiye Brothers, the New York children's
apparel manufactures lisenced by Disney to make the Mickey shirts, says
that he will end the Burma contract for "strictly business reasons." He
offers little elaboration. Tom Deegan, a spokesperson for Disney, says his
company had no knowledge of its licensee's business in Rangoon, and "In the
future, we will probably discourage our licensees from doing business in

        Burma--also known as Myanmar, the name given it by the junta--is a
poverty-stricken nation  wedged between India, China, and the lush
mountains of Thailand has labored for nearly thirty years under brutal
military rule that continues to this day, despite an overwhelming vote for
democracy in 1990.

        Since 1988, when the military killed thousands of students and
Buddhist monks in a crackdown on the nation's robust pro-democracy
movement, SLORC has attempted to slide from rogue status into legitimacy
with only a figleaf to cover the list of human rights violations documented
by international observers. On November 26, President Clinton paused during
an official visit to Thailand to direct words of condemnation at the
military regime. "The role of drugs in Burma .... and the regime's refusal
to honour its own pledge to multiparty democracy are really two sides of
the same coin, for both represent the absence of the rule of law," he said.

        With the exception of the symbolic 1995 release of Nobel Laureate
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the government's crimes against its people have
continued unchecked. SLORC's human rights abuses include use of forced
labor, torture and rape, warfare against ethnic minorities, absence of free
speech and assembly, and extrajudicial execution. Some 1000 partisans of
Daw Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy have been detained since May.
Wages in Rangoon garment factories average 6 cents per hour--one-half the
wages of neighboring Thailand--and workers routinely labor 60 hours per
week and have demands for better conditions answered with threats of
imprisonment or execution. Several weeks ago, US State Department officials
corroborated long-held allegations that SLORC is complicitous in the world
heroin trade, 60% of which originates in the poppy-rich Burmese hills.

        Seeking to prop up an economy strangled by more than three decades
of military rule, SLORC leaders called for a "systematic and proper"
privatization of the nation's resources and declared 1996 as "Visit Myanmar
Year" to lure foreign currency into the country. But investors' money,
including SLORC's 45 cent profit on every Disney dollar at the Yangon
garment shop, is never seen by Burmese citizens, but drops instead into the
bulging coffers of the government. The Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings
(UMEH), the state's joint venture partner for many foreign investors, is
40% owned by Burma's Directorate of Defense Procurement, which import
military weaponry, while the other 60% is held by shareholders in the armed
forces. "Whatever money (SLORC) obtains from foreign investors...pours
directly into the army while the rest of the country is collapsing," says
Burton Levin, former US Ambassador to Burma. 

        Though human rights groups as well as the U.S. State Department
provide exhaustive documentation of SLORC's abuses, investors have sought
to reap the fruits of SLORC's privatization. Companies from twenty-one
countries have sunk $5 billion dollars worth of investment to Burma, with
61% in natural gas and oil projects. American companies have outspent other
nations with a total of $245.7 million in investments, ranging from UPS'
weekly delivery in the belly of cargo planes to Unocal's $1.2 billion
natural gas pipeline connecting Burma to Thailand.

        This year, pressure on companies in Burma has escalated, and
investors are discovering that doing business with Burma requires an
increasingly complex calculus of cost and benefit. Shareholder resolutions
requiring companies to account for the financial impact of consumer
boycotts have been filed with five major companies that do business in
Burma, and a high-profile sweatshop campaign resulted in Liz Claiborne
halting apparel contracts in Rangoon. Since early 1995, the number of
companies pulling in their sails from Burma has grown to include Eddie
Bauer, Columbia Sportswear, Oshkosh, Heineken, Carlsberg, and London Fog.

        In June, Governor Weld signed a selective puchasing law which
mandates that the Commonwealth avoid contracts with companies that do
business in Burma. The law is the world's largest aimed at Burma, and
affects millions of dollars in contracts with nearly every state agency in
the Commonwealth. Eight cities, including San Francisco, have passed
similar laws, and there is similar legislation pending in Cambridge and New
York City.

        The Commonwealth's law has already resulted in the withdrawal of
Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, and Apple Computer's from the country, and
Eastman Kodak spokesman Charlie Smith says that Kodak is "in the process of
taking actions that will allow us to be in compliance with the statute in
questions." All four cited the possible loss of Massachusetts contracts as
contributing to their decisions to reevaluate their relations with Burma.

        Mobil Corporation, which sells lubricants in Burma and contracts
with the state to run ten Mass Turnpike gas stations, has been one of the
most vocal opponents of such boycotts. "Our position is that people think
very, very carefully about the implications of unilateral action.The U.S.
is obviously a global country. It is very importnat to us that the U.S.
maintain an open relationship with the world's trading countries," says
Mobil spokesman Chris Springham.

        Mobil and other companies instead advocate for "constructive
engagement," a policy of engaging the military leaders in multilateral
negotiations, with the goal of gradually easing the country toward
democracy. Such overtures ring hollow when one considers the nature of the
some of the engagements currently underway in Burma. The chairman and chief
executive of Pepsi Myanmar, Thein Tun, is also the vice-Chair of the
Myanmar Chamber of Commerce. In June, Thein Tun led a rally of 10,000
Burmese businessmen in supporting the SLORC and denouncing
"destructionists," SLORC's Orwellian shorthand for the NLD, and was quoted
in SLORC's daily newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar, as urging business
leaders to "denouce, ostracize, (and) crush" government opposition.

        Similarly, Unocal has been accused of engaging in the military's
forcible relocation and conscription of border tribes who "donate" labor,
according to SLORC, toward constructing a natural gas pipeline into
Thailand. Unocal, the largest U.S. investor in Burma, is the foremost
member of a consortium that includes Total of France and SLORC. The
pipeline, according to The New Light of Myanmar, will transport 525 million
cubic feet of gas per day, and will earn SLORC $400 million dollars per
year. The project has earned international condemnation for the forced
relocations of populations near the pipeline's overland routes, and SLORC's
use of "the people's contributions"--i.e., forced labor--in both the
construction of the pipeline and in a railroad construction which allegedly
is being built to deploy security troops to protect the pipeline.

        The arguments for contructive engagement are nothing more than a
codeword for continued cooperation with the dictators, according to Simon
Billenness of Boston's Franklin Research and Development Corporation, an
organization active in the passage of the Massachusetts law. "Companies
claim that they are following a policy of constructive engagement, but too
often their rhetoric is just a cover for uncritical business with the
military junta," says Billenness.

        Both PepsiCo and Unocal have become major targets of human rights
organizers. While Unocal has stubbornly denied well-documented reports of
collusion with SLORC, Pepsi has begun to bow to pressure from a nationwide
student boycott. The Free Burma Colation in Madison, which has chapters on
over 60 campuses, has been instrumental in pushing the Pepsi boycott. In
April, Pepsi announced that they were selling the majority share of the
Pepsi  bootling plant in Rangoon, but would continue to franchise and sell
products to Thein Tun. After students at Harvard pressed a selective
purchasing policy that forced the University to sign a contract with
Coca-Cola over Pepsi, Tufts students were treated to the unprecedented
appearance of a Pepsi-Cola spokesperson at a student government meeting at
which a similar policy was proposed at Tufts.

        As the Burma's abuses continue unabated, the U.S. government is
drawing closer to imposing sanctions on a Federal level. In September, the
president signed the Cohen-Feinstein Amendment, which imposes a ban on new
investment if SLORC imprisons Suu Kyi or steps up its clampdown on the NLD.

        While local selective purchasing laws may not have a large impact
on SLORC, "it's an important thing to do on an ethical level," says Gare
Smith, U.S. deputy assistant secretery of state for democracy, human
rights, and labor. "We would ideally like any additional sanctions against
the Burmese regime to be multilateral in nature. If necessary, however, we
would be willing to act unilaterally...to support Aung San Suu Kyi and the
democratic forces of the NLD and ensure a peaceful transition to

        There is much at stake in Burma, and both activists and
corporations have their eyes on the outcome. As Disney has discovered, it
is increasingly difficult for companies to operate with anonymity in a
climate in which consumers and human rights watchdogs are ever more
watchful of corporate behavior overseas.