Caught in The Net
               U.S. sanctions debate moves to cyberspace

                 By Nigel Holloway in Washington

                      November 28, 1996

    Want to find out about Burma without leaving your chair? Easy: Get
on the information superhighway and key in "Burma." First stop is a Web
site ( provided by the Free Burma Coalition: "A
collection of software, hardware, documentation and volunteers, all
doing what we're best at to hasten the replacement of the current
military government."

    Welcome to the world of Internet activism. In 1989, it was
television that brought Beijing's Tiananmen Square protests to the
world's living rooms.

    Now, the Internet is the messenger. And while the Burma-sanctions
lobby is probably the first of its kind to take full advantage of the
Net, it surely won't be the last.

    "Cyberspace spawned the movement to restore human rights to Burma,"
says Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of Human Rights
Watch/Asia. "The proliferation of information has put Burma higher on
the U.S. policy agenda than it ever would have been otherwise."

    It might do the same for other such causes. There are already Web
sites protesting Chinese actions in Tibet and Indonesian domination of
East Timor. They were encouraged by the success of the Burma lobby in
Washington. In September, lawmakers passed a bill that would allow the
president to ban new U.S. investment in Burma if he determines that the
military junta, known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or
Slorc, "has committed large-scale acts of repression."

    To be sure, the law isn't as strong as it might have been. It was
watered down in July after a last-minute effort by lobbyists
representing U.S.businesses in Burma. But the fact that American firms
were forced to launch a rear-guard action illustrates the power of the
Internet and of the small number of activists dotted around the country
who sent a flood of e-mail to their representatives on Capitol Hill.

    "This is a new form of communication, so if you start bombarding the
Net, Congress will pay attention," says Ronald Palmer, a Southeast Asian
specialist at George Washington University in the nation's capital.

    The anti-Slorc campaign shows that, thanks to the Internet,activists
don't need lots of money or people to make an impact. Students at more
than 100 niversities have organized Free Burma groups or something
similar,usually with the help of a handful of volunteers in each place.
More than 60 universities held a Free Burma Fast in October to protest
against Slorc. And students from as far afield as New Delhi, Sydney,
London and Tokyo are communicating with each other on the subject of
Burma, via the Internet.

    At the centre of this network is Zarni, a 32-year-old Burmese exile
studying for his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin. He spends 15
hours a day at his computer, weaving together his Free Burma Coalition
Web site, complete with colourful logo and photographs of conditions
inside Burma.

    The Internet has facilitated a change in anti-Slorc strategy. In the
early 1990s, student activists in America focused their efforts on
persuading U.S.companies to withdraw from Burma, with partial success.
Firms such as Eddie Bauer and Levi Strauss pulled out, and PepsiCo sold
its bottling plant in Burma (although it continues to supply syrup to
the plant).

    In 1994, attention turned to Capitol Hill. At that time only a
handful of domestic organizations were active on the Burma trail. But
they began to lobby their senators and representatives to support
legislation co-sponsored by Senators Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and
Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York that would have applied sanctions on
Burma for human-rights abuses.

    Two things favour the activists. First, few U.S. companies do
business in Burma, and those that do are mainly oil and gas concerns
such as Unocal. These firms wield clout, but not as much as the hundreds
of concerns working in China and lobbying against efforts to tie
Beijing's trading status to human-rights issues. What's more, the
students aren't alone. Also squaring off against U.S. companies over
Burma are the American trade-union movement, church groups and one or
two wealthy individuals such as billionaire investor George Soros, whose
Open Society Institute in New York sponsors a pro-democracy programme on

    The second factor working in the activists' favour is that "most
people don't know Burma from schmurma," says Larry Dohrs, Seattle
coordinator of the Campaign for a Free Burma. "People don't have
preconceived ideas, and the arguments are relatively stark." This can be
an advantage in Congress, where a small number of committed lawmakers
can wield disproportionate influence among the remainder open to

    "Foreign policy is always a back-burner issue," says a human-rights
lobbyist on Capitol Hill who asked not to be named. "What people don't
realize is that 500 letters to a congressman aren't necessary. If
members of Congress get 10-15 letters on a specific issue, it's

    As the debate on the McConnell-Moynihan sanctions bill neared, the
Burmese government was arresting opposition politicians and issuing
thinly veiled threats against the leader of the democratic movement,
Aung San Suu Kyi. The chances of getting a tough sanctions measure
through Congress had never seemed better. Yet when it came to a Senate
vote in July, the measure lost by 54 votes to 45. Instead, senators
adopted a weaker measure that leaves it to the president to decide
whether to impose sanctions on Slorc. The stronger measure would have
imposed sanctions as soon as the bill was passed.

    In the end, it was the Clinton administration's support for the
watered-down version that won the day. That, plus lobbying of the
old-fashioned kind by influential people representing the oil firms
investing in Burma. Of these, none is more powerful than Tom Korologos,
president of the Washington lobbying firm Timmons & Co. and an old
friend of Bob Dole, the Republican presidential candidate. An assistant
for Korologos confirmed that Unocal is a client. In the days before the
vote, Korologos was paying personal calls on key senators asking for
their support, according to a human-rights activist. But a staffer for
one such senator declined to confirm this. "I can't touch it," he says.

    Now the two sides of the sanctions debate (Burma's government has
its own Web site: are lobbying the Clinton
administration on whether to implement the sanctions law. And the
anti-Slorc group has been busy sending e-mail messages to the White
House urging the president to raise the issue of Burma on his Asia trip
that was to begin on November 19. "The administration will not make a
final decision [on sanctions] until after President Clinton comes back"
from the region, says a U.S. official.

    Whatever the outcome, international activism will never be the same.

//end text//

When spiders unite they can tie down a lion.  (Ethiopian Proverb)

The Free Burma Coalition
University of Wisconsin
225 North Mills Street,
Madison, WI 53706
Tel: (608)-827-7734
Fax: (608)-263-9992

When spiders unite they can tie down a lion.  (Ethiopian Proverb)

The Free Burma Coalition
University of Wisconsin
225 North Mills Street,
Madison, WI 53706
Tel: (608)-827-7734
Fax: (608)-263-9992