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IPS: U.S.-BURMA: Pressure Builds fo (r)

Subject: IPS: U.S.-BURMA: Pressure Builds for Investment Ban


U.S.-BURMA: Pressure Builds for Investment Ban

by Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Apr 18 (IPS) - With the administration of President Bill
Clinton apparently unwilling to take action, pressure is once again
building in the U.S. Congress and in state and local governments
around the country to impose a ban on new U.S. investments in Burma.

The powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Operations Subcommittee,
Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, indicated here Wednesday that he
will submit new legislation to impose an immediate ban soon.

Aides on Capitol Hill told IPS they expected the bill to be ready
within the next week and predicted that it would sail through an
impatient Congress, unless the situation in Burma suddenly improves.

Proponents of such a ban say their cause has been bolstered in
recent days by several events. On Tuesday, the U.N. Commission on
Human Rights passed its strongest ever resolution on Burma, noting
its deep concern at continuing restrictions and abuses levelled
against Burma's Nobel Peace Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, and members
of her party by the military government, the State Law and Order
Restoration Council (SLORC).

The Commission also condemned the practice of forced labour and
''recent attacks on ethnic nationalities resulting In death,
destruction and displacement,'' and called on the SLORC to cooperate
fully with the Special Rapporteur on Burma, who has not been
permitted to visit the country for over a year.

Ban supporters have also been heartened by Secretary of State
Madeleine Albright's explicit warning in a speech Monday to the U.S.
Naval Academy. Noting that the SLORC has increased its restrictions
and harassment of Suu Kyi and her supporters, Albright said,
''Burmese leaders are on notice that, unless the clouds of
repression are lifted, they will face investment sanctions under
U.S. law.''

While analysts here believe the administration does not intend to
impose sanctions immediately, they say Albright's remarks suggest
the White House is feeling the pressure. ''They'd like to stall this
indefinitely,'' said one key Congressional staffer. ''But they know
people up here have run out of patience.''

That was the message delivered to the administration by McConnell
during Wednesday's hearing. ''Since July 10, 1995, the
administration has told me our policy (towards Burma) has been under
review,'' he told a State Department witness. ''Even on the slowest
learning curve, 654 days is a long, long review period.'' July 10,
1995, was the date that Suu Chi, whose party swept elections in
1990, was released from five years of house arrest.

At stake is a law approved by Congress last July which requires a
ban on new U.S. investment in Burma if Clinton determines that the
SLORC has harmed Suu Kyi or engaged in ''large-scale repression'' of
its democratic opposition.'' The same law also gave Clinton the
power -- which he has since invoked -- to deny visas to SLORC
members, their families and key supporters.

Ban supporters say that general round-ups of members of Suu Kyi's
National League for Democracy party, as well as continued
restrictions on Suu Kyi's movements, meet the conditions set out in
the 1996 law for imposing the investment ban.

They point to a February report by Amnesty International which found
that, with 2,000 political arrests, 1996 was ''the most repressive
(year) since 1988'' when hundreds of people were killed during and
after a military coup d'etat. In a video-tape smuggled out of Burma
earlier this month, Suu Kyi also declared that her supporters were
facing increased persecution.

Indeed, the State Department, which in its annual human rights
country report on Burma conceded that the SLORC's ''rolling
repression'' of the opposition worsened during 1996, reportedly
concluded in December that the conditions had been met.

But further action has been stalled at the White House, which has
hosted a series of inconclusive inter-agency meetings since January.
The U.S. Trade Representative and the Department of Commerce -- both
of which tend to oppose unilateral sanctions -- have reportedly
argued against the ban.

''They feel that an investment ban would not affect the SLORC and
would hurt American companies, and they're under terrific pressure
from Unocal,'' the California-based oil company that is the biggest
U.S. investor in Burma, says one key Congressional aide. ''The
administration is generally sceptical of unilateral sanctions
anyway,'' he notes.

Unocal, which holds 28 percent of a 1.2-billion-dollar pipeline
project that runs from an off-shore field through Burma to Thailand,
is also feeling some pressure, however.

A federal court judge ruled last month that the company and its
French partner, Total, could be held liable for human rights abuses
committed by the SLORC in connection with the project.

In denying Unocal's appeal to dismiss the case, Judge Richard Paez
said that the company's payments to the government for providing
labour and security -- despite widespread charges of forced labour
and other abuses -- would be similar to ''participation in slave
trading'' if the charges were proven in court.

Unocal, which has repeatedly denied knowledge of any abuses in
connection with the project, intends to appeal the ruling in the
case, which was brought last year under the 200-year-old Alien Tort
Claims Act by Burmese farmers who were allegedly forced to work on
the project. The Act permits foreign victims of human rights abuse
to sue the perpetrators in the United States.

In recent years, Haitian, Argentine, and Guatemalan plaintiffs have
been awarded millions of dollars in damages against political and
military leaders in their countries under the law. Paez' ruling that
private firms could also be liable for the actions of these abuses
marks a major expansion of the law.

Unocal and the handful of U.S. companies which have not yet pulled
out of Burma also face growing problems with local and state
governments which continue to enact ''selective-purchasing'' laws
whose effect is to ban local governments from contracting with
companies doing business in Burma.

The state of Massachusetts, San Francisco, and almost a dozen other
towns and cities have approved such laws. Connecticut, New York
City, and at least a dozen other cities are expected to adopt
similar measures in the coming weeks and months.

Those local laws have been cited as a major reason for the decisions
of a growing list of U.S. companies to leave Burma. They include
PepsiCo, Amoco, Levi Strauss and Co., Eddie Bauer, Motorola,
Hewlett-Packard, Walt Disney, and Eastman Kodak.

''The pressure continues to grow,'' says Simon Billeness, an analyst
at Franklin Research and Development Corp. and a leader in the
anti-SLORC campaign. ''The longer the administration dithers, the
more the policy vacuum will be filled by these initiatives.''