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The Village Voice "Local Lobbyists
- Subject: The Village Voice "Local Lobbyists
- From: brelief@xxxxxxx
- Date: Fri, 18 Apr 1997 05:25:00
Subject: The Village Voice "Local Lobbyists and UNOCAL Shill for Burma's Military Junta" Beyond Rangoon
The Village Voice
Local Lobbyists and UNOCAL Shill for Burma's Military Junta
by Ken Silverstein
In recent months, three congressional delegations have embarked on missions
to Burma, a country whose citizens suffer widespread human rights abuses and
"live in a climate of fear," according to a new United Nations report. The
nation's military dictatorship has abolished almost all opposition, kept
Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi under virtual house arrest, and
employed torture and murder to maintain itself in power. Despite these
atrocities, and despite increasing pressure from a bipartisan coalition of
legislators and activists, President Clinton refused last week to impose
economic sanctions on the regime.
The president's decision seems to have been influenced by a high-stakes
lobbying effort being put forth on behalf of Burma's ruling generals -- an
effort that includes tow of the congressional excursions. The first
mission, headed by John Porter of Illinois, cochair of the Congressional
Human Rights Caucus, was denied entry and forced to travel to Thailand
instead. The other delegations, however -- one of which included New York
State's rising star, Bill Paxon -- were warmly greeted by the junta.
The regime's friendly welcome to the last two groups wasn't surprising.
Their respective journeys were funded by the Asia-Pacific Exchange
Foundation and the Burma/Myanmar Forum -- two D.C. outfits that receive
funding from oil giant UNOCAL, the biggest U.S. investor in Burma. UNOCAL's
financial support for those groups is part of a broad campaign by the
company to improve relations between Washington and Rangoon, and head off
any human rights-based action that could jeopardize its financial stake
there. The oil giant has even hired New York's top lobbying firm, Davidoff
& Malito, to help it quash local legislation that would punish companies
doing business in Burma.
UNOCAL's efforts represent the latest stage in Burma's quest for
international legitimacy. As one of the most reviled regimes in the world,
Burma is keenly aware of the need to polish its image in the U.S. -- its
financial success is riding on it. Last year, Congress passed a law
requiring the Clinton administration to impose stiff sanctions against Burma
if the junta, known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC)
stepped up repression of the opposition. Such criteria seems to have been
easily surpassed, as evidenced by Amnesty International's report that 1996
was the worst year for human rights in Burma since 1988, when the military
seized power and slaughtered 3000 people. The administration apparently
disagrees, as demonstrated by last week's decision not to act.
Burma's attempt to shed its rogue image first gained notice in 1991, when
the country hired lobbyist Edward Van Kloberg. Previously, Van Kloberg had
represented such beacons of democracy as Saddam Hussein, Nicolae Ceausescu,
Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, and Samuel Doe of Liberia. Van Kloberg took to
his task with relish, helping arrange meetings between Burma's ambassador, U
Thaung, and 23 members of Congress. However, the SLORC, apparently
embarrassed by the negative media coverage that followed the deal, summarily
dismissed Van Kloberg and stiffed him for $5000. The lobbyist, who
previously lavished praise on U Thaung, recently referred to him in print as
a "little shit."
Following the Van Kloberg debacle, the SLORC apparently concluded that the
task of lobbying would be best left to American firms with local
investments. But with many companies having pulled out -- including Disney
and PepsiCo -- in response to pressure from U.S. solidarity groups, only a
handful of American firms still have significant money on the line in Burma.
UNOCAL has the most at state, in the form of its share in a $1.2 billion
oil-pipeline joint venture with the French firm Total, the SLORC, and the
government of Thailand. Therefore, the sordid task of selling Burma to the
U.S. government and public has landed on the oil company's shoulders.
UNOCAL insists that the best way to promote human rights in Burma is to have
other U.S. firms join it there. "Engagement and investment are the keys to
starting a Third World country on the road to political reform," says a PR
statement the firm helped draft. "Isolation is exactly the wrong approach."
The company's strategy of speaking only in vague terms about the supposed
benefits of "engagement" is a wise one, since it's hard to see how
participation in a huge joint venture with a cabal of military thugs could
somehow enhance the cause of democracy. UNOCAL would also like to avoid
discussing the messy details of its involvement in Burma, such as the
company's decision to provide the cash-strapped dictatorship with a $7
million fertilizer credit.
To promote its ludicrous arguments, UNOCAL has recruited a number of heavy
hitters, including Timmons and Co's Tom Korologos, a prominent GOP lobbyist
who served as one of Bob Dole's top campaign advisers. UNOCAL paid
Korologos's firm -- which lobbied for the oil company on a broad range of
issues including Burma -- $280,000 for its efforts in 1996. During
congressional debate last summer, Korologos put heavy pressure on
Republicans who were considering voting for a bill that would have
immediately slapped sanctions on Rangoon. The bill was narrowly defeated,
clearing the way for passage of the loophole-ridden measure that Clinton
clings to as a justification for inaction.
UNOCAL has also been working at the state and local levels, especially in
opposing so-called selective- purchasing laws. These statues, which have
passed in a dozen cities and the state of Massachusetts, ban or deter
companies that do business in Burma from receiving government contracts.
Davidoff & Malito -- headed by Sid Davidoff, the close friend and advisor to
former mayor David Dinkins, and Robert Malito, one of Senator Alfonse
D'Amato's closest cronies -- was recently retained by UNOCAL to oppose a
selective-purchasing bill now before the New York City Council. At a March
4 council hearing, Davidoff & Malito's Arthur Goldstein claimed that while
there "are consistent reports" of human rights problems in Burma, "no such
violations have taken place" in connection with the UNOCAL project -- a
statement that ignores that SLORC forced peasants to labor on the pipeline
and forcibly relocated villages lying in its path. "Before UNOCAL hired
Davidoff & Malito we had an excellent chance of winning," says Nina Reznick,
a lawyer who has led New York's selective purchasing drive. "I'm still
optimistic, but it's going to take a hell of a lot more work."
UNOCAL has also sought to influence public opinion, selecting the Washington
PR firm Edelman Worldwide to drum up positive press. Edelman associate
Katie Connorton has taken on the task of soliciting articles from university
professors. In a January 31 letter to one academic, Connoton explained how
UNOCAL's pipeline project "is helping ... (bring) high paying jobs, economic
development, and socioeconomic assistance" to Burma -- perfect fodder, she
suggested for a piece about the oil company's heartwarming deeds in that
Among UNOCAL's most effective allies are the beltway outfits behind the
congressional junkets to Burma. The Asia-Pacific Exchange Foundation,
headed y a right-wing army reserve general, Richard Quick, has also
sponsored delegations to China and Singapore. Last December, the foundation
paid for four congressional Republicans --Paxon of New York, House majority
whip Tom De Lay of Texas, Dennis Hastert of Illinois, and Deborah Pryce of
Ohio -- to travel to Burma. The quartet met with various military leaders
and stayed in the tyrannized nation, ironically enough, on December 10,
International Human Rights Day.
The U.S. representatives did not meet with opposition leaders during their
visit but did find time to fly -- on a military plane -- to Pagan, a lovely
town where a few years ago villagers were forcibly removed to keep them away
from tourists and foreign reporters. The congress members also visited the
pipeline facilities, this being of particular interest to DeLay and Hastert,
as UNOCAL contributes to their political campaigns.
The Burma/Myanmar Forum is run by Frances Zwenig, a former staffer to
Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, and describes itself as "a key source
of information for those interested in the developing relationship between
the United States and Burma/Myanmar." The Forum has sponsored several trips
to Burma, most recently in February, when it covered the costs for five
carefully selected Hill staffers. These included Deanna Okun from the
office of Senator Frank Murkowski, perhaps the most rapidly pro-oil member
of Congress, and Dan Bob from the office of Senator William Roth, head of
the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees sanctions. "Zwenig's good.
She knows the Hill and how to work it," says a beltway Burma watcher who
asked not to be identified. "She must have money behind her because
arranging these trips is not cheap."
Neither Quick nor Zwenig will reveal their organization's financial backers.
However, a UNOCAL spokesman acknowledged that the company subsidizes both
operations. He would not say in what amount. "These are independent
organizations which pursue their mandates in an objective manner," said the
spokesman. "We have every right to support them. Asia is a major market
Activists from U.S. solidarity groups have a different perspective. "These
groups claim to be independent and give UNOCAL plausible deniability," said
Doug Steele, an editor of the online service Burma-Net. "Some members of
Congress who go on these trips may not even realize that they are being
Despite its lavish spending and powerful allies, UNOCAL may not be able to
fend off tougher measures against its friends in the SLORC for much longer.
There is a strong movement in Congress to pass a tougher sanctions bill on
Burma this year and even Clinton may reverse fields and back the provisions.
"He's up to his eyeballs with Asia problems," says the Burma watcher,
referring to the "donorgate" scandal. "The president may go along (with a
new sanctions bill), if only to avoid drawing any more attention to the region.
April 17, 1997