Review: Free Burma

Free BurmaIn his new book Free Burma: Transnational Legal Action and Corporate Accountability, sociology professor John Dale challenges the basic assumption underlining “constructive engagement” policies that continued trade with Burma will help bring about political reform in the country. Dale argues that, instead of promoting democracy, constructive engagement poses a threat to Burma’s political and economic development.

Contrary to constructive engagement, civil society movements see the presence of transnational corporations inside Burma as helping to sustain the regime. Foreign investment does not benefit the Burmese, they maintain, but only empowers the junta. They also argue that companies that do business with the regime violate the rights of Burmese either directly or indirectly, employ child labor, remove people from the land, and destroy the environment. Therefore, these companies have to be held accountable. Civil society activists operate under the assumption that the Burmese regime would suffer greatly without foreign investment. In order to achieve their main objective, the movement established a worldwide network, launched a campaign to raise public awareness in the United States, and sued companies in court.

These efforts finally brought positive results with the passage of Free Burma laws in numerous states, including Massachusetts and Michigan. The Burma law in Massachusetts, for instance, enjoined commonwealth authorities and agencies from purchasing goods and services from companies that do business with the Burmese regime. Following the Massachusetts precedent, a federal law imposed conditional sanctions on Burma.

These laws showed the positive result of transnational movements. But they also caused a backlash. Corporations were motivated to unite and launch a counterattack by challenging the morality and the legality of these laws. Corporate attorneys claimed that the laws were an “injurious imposition” of “unfair trade barriers” and an unconstitutional interference in foreign affairs.

Free Burma documents and analyzes this battle, which has involved the state, corporations, and a transnational movement of civil society. This battle, Dale demonstrates, is not only about legal issues, it’s also about the discourse that underlies the presence of corporations in Burma and the question of who gets to shape U.S. foreign policy toward the country. He also shows how the state has increasingly aligned itself with corporate interests. “Constructive engagement” in many ways is embedded in this alliance of states and corporations. Interestingly, corporations are in Burma in the first place because an illiberal regime made a “liberal” decision to open its market to foreign investment.

Free Burma also provides a valuable lesson for any social movements operating in the globalized and integrated world. Although globalization enables companies to expand their operations to other countries, it also helps social movements become transnational. Such transnational movements then become a powerful alternative movement when the state’s foreign and economic policies fails to produce results.

In the case of Burma, the sanctions campaign raised public consciousness that consumers have the power to influence the behavior of corporations. Most importantly, Dale’s book raises the question of who rules over corporations. The entrenched policies of constructive engagement, Dale concludes, suggest that corporations, often aligned with the state, reign supreme.

Guteriano Neves is an East Timorese activist and contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.