Out of Burma: Grassroots Activism Forces Multinationals to End Ties with the Burmese Dictatorship

Article excerpt

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 international pariah.


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 house arrest.

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.


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. …