[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index
Beyound Rangoon: Local Lobbylists a
- Subject: Beyound Rangoon: Local Lobbylists a
- From: waterly@xxxxxxxxx
- Date: Fri, 18 Apr 1997 18:52:00
Subject: Beyound Rangoon: Local Lobbylists and Unocalshill
Copyright 1997 VV Publishing Corporation
The Village Voice
April 22, 1997
SECTION: World; Pg. 38
LENGTH: 1704 words
HEADLINE: BEYOND RANGOON: LOCAL LOBBYISTS AND UNOCALSHILL FOR BURMA'S MILITARY
BYLINE: 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 two 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 rightsbased 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 stake, 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 statutes, 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 adviser 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, Connorton explained how
UNOCAL s pipeline project is helping... bring high paying jobs, economic
devlopment, 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
by 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 DeLay 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
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 congressmembers 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 rabidly 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 organizations 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 major market for us.
Activists from U.S. solidarity groups have a different perspective. These
groups claim to be independent and give UNOCAL plausible deniability, says Doug
Steele, an editor of the online service BurmaNet. Some members of Congress who
go on these trips may not even realize that they are are being lobbied.
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 provision.
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.
GRAPHIC: Photo 1: Head of the junta: General Than Shwe, chairman of the SLORC.
Photo 2: Merry junketeer: New York's Bill Paxon.
Photo 2 credit: Jeffrey Markowitz/SYGMA