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U.S. can afford to act against Myan
Subject: U.S. can afford to act against Myanmar (The Hindu, 4/2/97)
U.S. can afford to act against Myanmar
The Hindu (New Delhi), 4/2/97.
>From Sridhar Krishnaswami
WASHINGTON, Feb. 3.
With the Clinton administration emphasising that human rights will be a
central component of American foreign policy, there is the unmistakable
impression that this would present Washington with many problems,
especially as it related to the Asia Pacific. It is not merely a case of
singling out allies and adversaries on where things have gone wrong in
the realm of rights and democracy or where, the shortcomings are to be
met by pursuing a sanctions approach that will strengthen the hands of
those calling for an even handed approach.
A case in point is Myanmar where on the day the State Department came out
with its 1996 Human Rights Report. a major American oil corporation,
Unocal, announced that it had signed on for the exploration and
development of gas fields. New York Times, quoting Unocal company
officials, reported that several million dollars had been paid to the
military junta in Yangon by way of a signing bonus. It is not the first
project that the Unocal has been involved in Myanmar: and the company has
brushed aside allegations that one of its major projects involved the use
of forced labour or people pressed into work by the military government.
The State Department has also taken the line that there is no sufficient
evidence to confirm forced labour has gone to make point that workers at
the Yadana Gas Field are being paid at least a market wage.
The White House and the administration are under increasing pressure to
tighten the screws on the military regime; and the focus is on whether
the President, Mr. Bill Clinton, can slap an existing law that would ban
investments by American companies in Myanmar. Some will make the point
that one reason why Unocal rushed into initialling the deal was to escape
the Presidential directive; but others will argue that the White House
and the administration will have to think over several times before
signing on to the new law.
The common refrain of human rights activists and groups with respect to
Myanmar is that Western multinationals doing business with Yangon are
only prolonging the shelf life of the State Law and Order Restoration
Council. A valid, point has been made that the generals running the tight
fisted show are being rewarded millions of dollars through bonuses,
royalties and, of course, taxes -- all of these keeping the brass hats
going and things that do little to enhance the lot of the people in the
The real question is if an investment ban on American companies doing
business with Myanmar is going to work or in any way help the cause of
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi. In fact Washington has had to hear criticism of
allies like Japan that some of the requirements of specific states, as
for Instance Massachusetts, vis-a-vis Myanmar, are hurting the business
environment. Some states have taken the lead in bringing about
legislation prohibiting the state from doing business with a company that
has a Myanmar link. Not too long ago PepsiCo pulled out of its Myanmar
operations because of protests from groups -- notably the student
community -- who have threatened to boycott the company's products.
The ban on investments using human rights as the core issue is not going
to be an easy decision for there is nothing to indicate even within the
administration any broad consensus on the subject. It has been pointed
out that some of Mr. Clifton's advisors in the Economic Council have
apparently argued that a unilateral move by the United States would not
get anywhere because there were several nations that do business with
Myanmar. Piling pressure on other countries to do likewise would get
nowhere for the simple reason many have already informed Washington of
where they stand on economic and investment sanctions.
What the Clinton administration must be really apprehensive about
investment sanctions against Myanmar is the implications of this in a
larger sense. As it is there is the criticism that the Clinton
administration is able to talk tough to Myanmar because the country is
small and the scope of American investments limited; and that the U.S. is
unable to advance the same lecture to China is because of the
extensiveness of economic contact between the two countries.
Keeping trade and the opportunities of the mega market in mind the
Clinton administration has turned a blind eye on not only issues of human
rights in China -- the same goes as far as Beijing's dubious peddling in
nuclear weapons technology and outright missile sales or missile
technology to countries like Iran and Pakistan. Now if the
administration moves in against Myanmar on human rights why cannot it
take the same line with respect to China? That is a question which will
be asked in Capitol Hill and one that cannot be shrugged off easily.
Thus far the strategic reasoning has been heard little of, but the
Clinton administration cannot be totally ignorant even of that.