In September, Burma was on the front pages of global media, the result of the Burmese military junta's violent crackdown on the peaceful, pro-democracy protests spearheaded by Buddhist monks. Images of soldiers bludgeoning protesters, in one case shooting a Japanese photographer at close range (he later died), held the world's attention for a number of days.
As of December, the story continued to unfold, mostly without the benefit of front-page coverage, as the media had moved on to other issues. The BBC reported that the UN had confirmed at least 31 deaths in the crackdown.
Later in the month Congress passed a bill aiming to tighten sanctions against Burma. The legislation is meant to close loopholes that allow Burmese gems to be imported through third countries, as well as those that provide the junta access to US banks to launder money in third countries.
The House had proposed these measures in October, shortly after Jewelers of America, the main industry group for jewelry retailers in the U.S., called on Congress to add gemstones mined in Burma to the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003. The Act bans imports from Burma to the U.S.
The EU also announced in October that it would impose a ban on investment in and importation of Burmese timber, metals and gems.
Groups advocating democracy in Burma welcomed these developments. But human rights advocate Salil Tripathi pointed out recently that western human rights activists should be pressuring the governments supporting the Burmese junta, rather than focusing on western companies, as the latter no longer have the leverage needed to move the Burmese government.
In this vein, Seth Mydans noted in the International Herald Tribune that neither sanctions nor "friendly persuasion and engagement" by Burma's nearest neighbors had worked in the past. The article quoted experts who said sanctions had to be supplemented by much greater diplomatic pressure and coordination by the international community.
India, China and Thailand, to name a few countries, continue to trade with the regime, and China maintains a veto on the UN Security Council, which hampers that body's ability to take stronger actions.
In the meantime, pressure continues for the last western companies in Burma – among them Total and Chevron – to leave; shareholders have continued to press Chevron publicly to get out.
Western companies operating in Burma have argued that they have helped ordinary Burmese citizens via development programs and job creation, and that companies that have no concern for human rights could move in to take their place if they move out.
In response to such arguments, Burma activist and senior advisor for shareholder advocacy at the AFL-CIO, Simon Billenness, said that the amount that Chevron and Total spent on these community projects "pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue the pipeline provides the military regime."
Further, he noted, there might not be a huge difference between western companies and "Chinese oil companies operating in Burma".
In fact, human rights groups have turned their attention to Asian companies operating there. Just after the crackdown began, Human Rights Watch (HRW) publicly called on "Chinese, Indian, Thai and other companies" to "ensure their operations do not contribute to or benefit from human rights abuses" in Burma.
In November HRW published a detailed report on foreign oil and gas companies providing a "crucial source of support" to the Burmese junta. The group also called on the UN Security Council to place targeted sanctions on petroleum industry investment in Burma, and issued a report on the crackdown.
The US House of Representatives' recent unanimous vote to award the Congressional Gold Medal (the highest civilian honor in the U.S.) to Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to bring needed attention to the plight of the Burmese people.
The picture emerging is of a need to target all possible leverage points on the Burmese junta, including governments, western and non-western companies active in Burma, and the United Nations. Social investors, along with their allies in the human rights community, are working to keep the pressure on corporations and to keep Burma on the front burner.