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Seattle Newspaper Column on Burma L
Deals With Dictators
by Geov Parrish
Last week, I looked at a couple of underreported trophy projects at
the Port of Seattle--$570 million worth of taxpayer-funded
improvements slated for two companies, Stevedores Services of
America and American Presidential Lines, at Terminals 18 and 5
These public gifts raise a basic question about the role of government.
Governments, according to my high school civics correctly, exist so that
citizens can provide ourselves collectively with what we can't do (or
can't do as efficiently) by ourselves. Classic examples: fire
protection, national defense, infrastructure, and (in more responsive
countries) social programs like health care and welfare. Currently,
global economic rage is to use governments instead to make the rich richer
than they could ever manage by themselves.
Issues like the port terminals raise a fundamental question: Where
is the policy balance between the needs of capital and the needs of
the whole community? Where should elected officials draw the line?
When should they say: "We have more pressing needs"?
Which brings us to Burma, and the Seattle City Council.
Burma--for those of you not up on your War Crimes of The '90s--is
a small country in Southeast Asia that has been illegally ruled
since 1988 by a military cabal distinguished, amongst stiff
competition, as perhaps the most brutal in the world. Space doesn't
permit the gruesome details; suffice it to say they've voided
elections, jailed, tortured, and/or murdered the opposition, waged
a genocidal war against ethnic minorities, robbed the country
blind, and further funded their atrocities by running weapons and
operating a narcotics trade responsible for an estimated 60% of all
heroin in the U.S.
Burma is, by any and every measure--including that of the U.S.
State Department, normally not prone to condemning dictators--an
international pariah. Official U.S. policy bars new investment in
Burma, and an aggressive grass roots campaign has forced many
transnational corporations (most visibly, Pepsico) to drop their
business in the country. Few companies are left (Arco is the most
As part of the campaign of international pressure, for the last
several months Seattle activists have been trying to get the Seattle
City Council to pass an ordinance barring the city from giving its
business to corporations with holdings in Burma.
Here, one would think, is a slam dunk for image-conscious Seattle
liberals: a gesture with no cost, concerning a tiny country not too
far from where you'd come out if you drilled a hole straight down
through the planet, affecting no existing or future city contracts.
It allows Seattle to make a PC statement without actually doing
anything--much more liberal Seattle's style than confronting
human rights abuses on our side of the world, like, say, in the
Seattle Police Department or our local INS.
Sure enough, Seattle's Free Burma Coalition had clear sailing: a
bill with seven council members lined up with yes votes, sponsored
by council President (and chief business advocate) Jan Drago.
The ordinance, remarkably, is now on hold, with Drago refusing to
schedule a council vote. Instead, a council committee will hold a
public panel to discuss the issue on December 2. The reason? Big
business doesn't like it. Two key letters--from outgoing state
Special Trade Representative Bob Randolph and from the Washington
Council on International Trade (WCIT), a big business lobbying
group, (signed by Chair Karl Ege and Port Commissioner Pat Davis),
seem to have stopped the ordinance in its tracks.
Both letters are replete with misinformation. Randolph's claims the
law would run afoul of World Trade Organization guidelines--when
it's squarely in line with not only numerous other local
ordinances, but current U.S. policy. Ege and the newly re-elected
Davis go on for two pages about how sanctions in general are a bad
idea, suggesting that Seattle instead pass a toothless resolution
(which it did two years ago), and encouraging an influx of
investment and trade into dictatorships (in violation of current
U.S. law on Burma).
In essence, their argument--after the doublespeak--is that
condemning Burma is a bad idea because it sets a precedent of
linking business practices to non-business criteria. In this case,
human rights and governmental legitimacy.
You can see why a company like Boeing (a key WCIT member) would be
concerned. Today Burma, tomorrow--why, the list might be endless.
We could start with the illegal, plane-happy rulers of Burma's
northern neighbor, the formerly independent country of Tibet. And
keep going with most of the APEC leaders in Vancouver this month,
such as Indonesian butcher Suharto.
That one such letter, laden with errors and misinformation, can
have more weight than months of volunteer lobbying is a mind-
boggling testimony to the power of money, even locally, to not only
buy access but trump citizen access at the same time.
But there's an even more basic lesson in this seemingly symbolic
battle. As Drago fiddles, Burmese continue to die. If the city of
Seattle--now led by an ex-developer as Mayor and the former head of
the Downtown Seattle Association as council President--can't say
no to big business when the moral issues are so clear and the
cost is so negligible, when CAN we say no?
For more information on the Dec. 2 panel, or to get involved in
the Seattle Campaign for a Free Burma, call 206-784-5742.