Sunday, April 10, 2011

Aung Moe and Amy: Sanctions' Collateral Damage (2)

By 1997 the writing was on the wall and most foreign business relying on the exports to the biggest market in the world USA were preparing for the worst and ready to get out of Burma. And the exodus of foreign companies especially of the West Bloc from Burma was started by the sudden withdrawal of Pepsi-Cola in May 1997.

Burma Boycott & Shocking Pressure on Pepsi-Cola

FBC's Pepsi Boycott.
It would be hard to explain the beginning of the economic sanctions against Burma without mentioning the particularly shocking case of Pepsi-Cola’s withdrawal from Burma in 1997. This edited extracts from Burma Boycott Quarterly; Summer 1997 by Reid Cooper is self explanatory about the enormous pressure being applied on the Pepsi back then to abandon its much profitable operation in Burma.

“On November 22, 1991, a Pepsi bottling plant in Rangoon formally opened. The plant was joint venture between Pepsi Co. and Thein Htun’s Pepsi-Cola Products Myanmar. Thein Htun had built his business carrier on being a representative for foreign firms in Burma, developing a reputation as a SLORC (military junta) businessman.  

In the West, however, Burma activists were concentrating their efforts on oil companies like Texaco, Amoco, and Petro-Canada. Their attention elsewhere, these activists outside Asia left the PepsiCo issue on the backburner if they were aware at all. But Petrol-Canada pulled out of Burma in late 1992, Burma activists in Canada, working in consultation with handful of US based activists, turns their attention to PepsiCo.

Meanwhile, socially responsible investors at such organizations as Franklin Research Development were pressuring PepsiCo to leave Burma. Dialogue between shareholders and management started in 1992, with PepsiCo producing its first report on its Burma operation in 1993. Political pressure on companies like PepsiCo to leave Burma grew with Burma Boycott.
Founder of FBC, Exile Zar Ni.

But the real explosion in PepsiCo/Burma Boycott came with the creation in 1995 of the Free Burma Coalition (FBC) founded by the University of Wisconsin based Zar Ni. Making more effective use of the Internet as an organizing tool, the FBC began to coordinate national and international actions to raise awareness of various Burma Boycotts.

In particular, FBC groups across USA and Canada began a concerted effort to stop PepsiCo from getting exclusive marketing deals on their campuses. One key victory for FBC was Harvard. On April 8, 1996, students there succeeded in blocking a $1 million contract when they raised ethical concerns about PepsiCo’s dealings in Burma.

(Of course there were no representation for the poor people of Burma and their hopes on the economic reforms while the exile industry led by the likes of Zar Ni had twisted the actual facts and dishonestly presented to the North American Universities.)

The students’ campaign generated headlines in such places as the Washington Post, which increased PepsiCo shareholders’ concerns. Shaken, the PepsiCo responded with a paper-shuffle by announcing on April 24, 1996, that it was selling its interest in its Burmese operations to its partner, turning them into a franchise.

Aung San Su Kyi, Burma’s opposition leader, responded by saying ‘As far as we are concerned, Pepsi has not divested from Burma.’

In late 1996, the PepsiCo/Burma Boycott picked up momentum in the UK when Third World First, an organization with chapters at 40% of British universities, made the Pepsi Boycott a major campaign. Now PepsiCo would soon be facing in Europe a repeat of its disasters at North American campuses.

PepsiCo then made the decision to cut all ties to Burma by May 31, 1997. It is a significant achievement for Burma’s democracy movement. A major Western corporation has promised, after much resistance, to leave Burma.

The PepsiCo cited ‘the spirit of current US Government policy’ for its departure, rather than follow the example of Levi Strauss and Liz Claiborne and admit that it had erred in entering Burma in the first place.” 

Once Pepsi has left Burma for good in late 1997 the exit door for Direct Foreign Investors’ was wide opened and the textile industry in Rangoon was basically shut down within a year as all the South Korean and Taiwanese investors slowly went back home.

Closure of Garment Factory

According to the official presentation by Myanmar Garments Manufacturers Association to the Regional Textile and Clothing Trade Conference in Shanghai in April 2007, the number of garment factories in Burma declined from 291 in their peak year 1999 to just 142 in 2004. Sanctions have almost killed off the textile industry overnight and my friend’s garment factory was one of the casualties.

First they had been forced to lay off most of the young and relatively inexperienced workers like Amy in 1999 and later they had to shut the whole factory down as they couldn’t find an export market for their finished garments. And also the domestic construction was booming and his family basically switched their considerable resources to forming a building construction company. They even sold the garment machineries and later subdivided the factory land and sold them off as individual housing blocks.

Aung Moe as an indentured-labor didn’t really lose the job but he was shifted to their construction company and became a builder-laborer in one of their worksites. I’d lost contact with my friend after my business also was suddenly stopped due to my unfortunate involvement with the Burmese Military Intelligent Service and their arms and heroin trafficking in late 1990s.(The Scourge of Burma - Part 6 and Final)

Then in 2002 I read about Aung Moe in a popular Burmese crime magazine in a Burmese restaurant in Sydney’s inner west suburb of Strathfield. The short story described Aung Moe’s stabbing murder case as a crime of passion. He basically killed a foreign businessman from South Korea or Taiwan, I couldn’t recall now, in the fight following an altercation outside a karaoke bar in Rangoon’s notorious entertainment strip at the Theingyi Bazzar on the Signal Pagoda Road.

The story also shockingly added that a young Anglo-Burmese escort named Amy who was with the murdered businessman was also injured in the fight. As soon as I got back home from the restaurant I called my friend’s house in Rangoon’s Golden Valley. This was roughly what happened to Aung Moe and Amy, according to him.