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feer: caught in the net
Caught in The Net
U.S. sanctions debate moves to
By Nigel Holloway in
November 28, 1996
Want to find out about Burma without leaving your
chair? Easy: Get on the information
superhighway and key in "Burma." First stop is a Web
site (http://freeburma.org) provided by the Free
Burma Coalition: "A collection of software,
hardware, documentation and volunteers, all doing what
we're best at to hasten the replacement of the
current military government."
Welcome to the world of Internet activism. In 1989,
it was television that brought Beijing's Tiananmen
Square protests to the world's living rooms. Now,
the Internet is the messenger. And while the
Burma-sanctions lobby is probably the first of its
kind to take full advantage of the Net, it surely won't be
"Cyberspace spawned the movement to restore human
rights to Burma," says Mike Jendrzejczyk,
Washington director of Human Rights Watch/Asia. "The
proliferation of information has put Burma
higher on the U.S. policy agenda than it ever would
have been otherwise."
It might do the same for other such causes. There
are already Web sites protesting Chinese actions in
Tibet and Indonesian domination of East Timor. They
were encouraged by the success of the Burma lobby
in Washington. In September, lawmakers passed a bill
that would allow the president to ban new U.S.
investment in Burma if he determines that the
military junta, known as the State Law and Order
Restoration Council, or Slorc, "has committed
large-scale acts of repression."
To be sure, the law isn't as strong as it might have
been. It was watered down in July after a last-minute
effort by lobbyists representing U.S. businesses in
Burma. But the fact that American firms were forced to
launch a rear-guard action illustrates the power of
the Internet and of the small number of activists dotted
around the country who sent a flood of e-mail to
their representatives on Capitol Hill.
"This is a new form of communication, so if you
start bombarding the Net, Congress will pay attention,"
says Ronald Palmer, a Southeast Asian specialist at
George Washington University in the nation's
The anti-Slorc campaign shows that, thanks to the
Internet, activists don't need lots of money or people
to make an impact. Students at more than 100
universities have organized Free Burma groups or
something similar, usually with the help of a
handful of volunteers in each place. More than 60
universities held a Free Burma Fast in October to
protest against Slorc. And students from as far afield as
New Delhi, Sydney, London and Tokyo are
communicating with each other on the subject of Burma, via
At the centre of this network is Zarni, a
32-year-old Burmese exile studying for his doctorate at the
University of Wisconsin. He spends 15 hours a day at
his computer, weaving together his Free Burma
Coalition Web site, complete with colourful logo and
photographs of conditions inside Burma.
The Internet has facilitated a change in anti-Slorc
strategy. In the early 1990s, student activists in
America focused their efforts on persuading U.S.
companies to withdraw from Burma, with partial success.
Firms such as Eddie Bauer and Levi Strauss pulled
out, and PepsiCo sold its bottling plant in Burma
(although it continues to supply syrup to the
In 1994, attention turned to Capitol Hill. At that
time only a handful of domestic organizations were
active on the Burma trail. But they began to lobby
their senators and representatives to support
legislation co-sponsored by Senators Mitch McConnell
of Kentucky and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of
New York that would have applied sanctions on Burma
for human-rights abuses.
Two things favour the activists. First, few U.S.
companies do business in Burma, and those that do are
mainly oil and gas concerns such as Unocal. These
firms wield clout, but not as much as the hundreds of
concerns working in China and lobbying against
efforts to tie Beijing's trading status to human-rights
issues. What's more, the students aren't alone. Also
squaring off against U.S. companies over Burma are
the American trade-union movement, church groups and
one or two wealthy individuals such as
billionaire investor George Soros, whose Open
Society Institute in New York sponsors a pro-democracy
programme on Burma.
The second factor working in the activists' favour
is that "most people don't know Burma from schmurma,"
says Larry Dohrs, Seattle coordinator of the
Campaign for a Free Burma. "People don't have preconceived
ideas, and the arguments are relatively stark." This
can be an advantage in Congress, where a small number
of committed lawmakers can wield disproportionate
influence among the remainder open to persuasion.
"Foreign policy is always a back-burner issue," says
a human-rights lobbyist on Capitol Hill who asked
not to be named. "What people don't realize is that
500 letters to a congressman aren't necessary. If
members of Congress get 10-15 letters on a specific
issue, it's significant."
As the debate on the McConnell-Moynihan sanctions
bill neared, the Burmese government was arresting
opposition politicians and issuing thinly veiled
threats against the leader of the democratic movement,
Aung San Suu Kyi. The chances of getting a tough
sanctions measure through Congress had never
seemed better. Yet when it came to a Senate vote in
July, the measure lost by 54 votes to 45. Instead,
senators adopted a weaker measure that leaves it to
the president to decide whether to impose sanctions
on Slorc. The stronger measure would have imposed
sanctions as soon as the bill was passed.
In the end, it was the Clinton administration's
support for the watered-down version that won the day.
That, plus lobbying of the old-fashioned kind by
influential people representing the oil firms investing
in Burma. Of these, none is more powerful than Tom
Korologos, president of the Washington lobbying
firm Timmons & Co. and an old friend of Bob Dole,
the Republican presidential candidate. An assistant for
Korologos confirmed that Unocal is a client. In the
days before the vote, Korologos was paying personal
calls on key senators asking for their support,
according to a human-rights activist. But a staffer for one
such senator declined to confirm this. "I can't
touch it," he says.
Now the two sides of the sanctions debate (Burma's
government has its own Web site:
http://www.myanmar.com) are lobbying the Clinton
administration on whether to implement the
sanctions law. And the anti-Slorc group has been
busy sending e-mail messages to the White House
urging the president to raise the issue of Burma on
his Asia trip that was to begin on November 19. "The
administration will not make a final decision [on
sanctions] until after President Clinton comes back"
from the region, says a U.S. official.
Whatever the outcome, international activism will
never be the same.
http://FreeBurma.org is the Burma information starting point.
http://sunsite.unc.edu/freeburma/whatsnew.html <--See what's new
http://sunsite.unc.edu/burma-bin/WebX <--post your own info on the