News Release

Debate Breaks Out on Efforts to Pressure Burma About Human Rights


WASHINGTON — In the largest such effort since the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s, the state of Massachusetts and some 20 cities and localities are effectively refusing to buy from companies that do business in Burma, where a military junta seized power and human rights abuses persist. Now, salvos are being fired about the legitimacy of such measures by local governments.

Today, hours after the Cato Institute put out a news release arguing that state and local selective-purchasing laws on Burma are unconstitutional, the think tank drew a barrage of criticism for confusing the issue rather than clarifying it. Among those available for comment:

Senior analyst at the investment firm of Franklin Research & Development and coordinator of the Massachusetts Burma Roundtable, a coalition in support of the Burmese pro-democracy movement, Billenness said: “The Cato Institute professes to support the free market, yet it is arguing that the federal government should prevent Massachusetts from participating in the free market as the state sees fit. This clearly shows how the Cato Institute backs corporate interests rather than the free market.” Billenness also took issue with Cato’s contention that such purchasing laws “collide head-on” with a federal law that bans new investment in Burma. Said Billenness: “Local laws actually supplement sanctions at the federal level.”

Chief sponsor of Burma and South Africa selective-purchasing legislation in Massachusetts, state Rep. Rushing said: “Essentially what Cato has done is to rehash the position the National Foreign Trade Council has been taking in their suit against Massachusetts. They seem to be concerned about the experience with South Africa and the anti-apartheid movement. They don’t want to deal with democratic grassroots movements around human rights issues. The Burma law was modeled on legislation on South Africa…. It WOULD be unconstitutional for us to make it illegal for companies to do business with Burma, but our legislation is about state purchasing. We have the same rights as anyone has in deciding what to buy and from whom.”

A journalist who has written widely on Burma for The Nation and other outlets, Bernstein said: “While Cato deals in questionable constitutional issues, democracy activists in Burma are surely being raped, tortured and murdered in a systematic manner. Many have died in Burma trying to implement some of those concepts Cato now purports to care so much about. I do hope Cato’s sources on Burma’s narco-dictatorship go beyond the drumbeat of phony PR now being produced by high-priced Washington PR firms.”

For more information, contact Sam Husseini at the Institute for Public Accuracy, (202) 347-0020.

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