Berkeley Reconsiders Boycott of Burma

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Although the U.S. Supreme Court effectively struck down the city's boycott of Burma this week, local activists and council members said they will continue to pursue the city's groundbreaking foreign policy objectives.

The court unanimously declared unconstitutional a Massachusetts law that implemented sanctions on Burma, also known as Myanmar. A coalition of business groups and the Clinton administration had challenged the law on the grounds that it undermined federal authority.

In 1995, Berkeley paved the way for Massachusetts and other governments to combat what is considered a repressive dictatorship in Burma by refusing to do business with companies engaged in commerce with the country.

"People are being killed left and right," said Councilmember Betty Olds, who helped kick off anti-Burma activism when she co-authored the bill. "People's lives there are in danger. It is a terrible place, the way people are treated. They are lovely people who just don't deserve that kind of treatment."

In response to the court's ruling, Berkeley City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque advised the city to end its boycott against Burma.

She emphasized, however, that the court's decision was narrow, dealing only with one nation. The city can continue its bans on companies that do business with Nigeria, Tibet and Indonesia, for example.

"(The ruling) will have no affect on those other countries," said an aide from Albuquerque's office.

Local government will still have an opportunity to impact federal foreign policy, according to Councilmember Kriss Worthington.

"I would argue that their ruling does not preempt us in taking a stand on human rights issues," Worthington said. "And that is good, because one of the main purposes of local government taking on issues is to build pressure on the federal government."

One local resident and Burmese boycott supporter said that although the ruling was a setback to the free-Burma movement, innovative activists will not be deterred by the high court's decision.

"Our reactions are mixed," said Kevin Danahar, co-founder of the human rights organization Global Rights. "Even though it was a blow to the movement, it was more of a slap than a spear to the heart. The way the movement is taking it is as a challenge to reinvigorate the free-Burma movement."

Danahar said Massachusetts residents are currently rewording legislation to accommodate the court's ruling.

In the Bay Area, Global Exchange is contacting legislators in Berkeley and Contra Costa County. If municipalities require every company doing business with them to disclose whether or not they are operating in Burma, those companies will be motivated to leave Burma to improve their public relations, Danahar said.

"The danger is that (the court's ruling) creates a precedent for putting the corporation above the citizen," he said. "In a sense, the government is saying that we the people in our democratic branches don't have the right to decide how we are going to spend our tax money if it interferes with the corporation's profits. Putting profits above all else is creating a backlash on the citizenry."


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