Business American Style
If you felt alone in the world of exploitative business enterprise it should cause you no small amount of joy to learn that everyone on the industrialized side of the fence is just as nefarious, trouncing about with the rabid mongrels and shoeless children of the third world. The uniforms worn and the flags waved may have changed but the great white North still has the unlisted numbers to the new guard of colonial rule below the equator. The French army will not be found imposing curfew in North Africa, Britain no longer imposes martial law in India and the Dutch have ceased their murderous pacification in the heart of darkness, but rest assured that the situation is under control. The natives aren’t likely to get uppity because the natives will be shot so the steady stream of cheap imports and the bottomless pool of cheap labour will continue to exist for our amusement and profit.
Historically the Germans were not forerunners in the imperial land-grabs of yore, waiting for world events to invest much in properties beyond the borders. In the modern era we have Bert Morsbach, formerly an engineer from Dusseldorf just shy of seventy, who has labored for the past couple of years to introduce his Myanmar Vineyards. A sprawling 40-acre paradise in western Myanmar welcomes guests to tour the property, enjoy a fine meal and, perhaps, even stay for a couple days. Soak up the temperate climate in the shadows of the Blue Mountains just forty miles from the famed Inle Lake. Sample the fine selection of European-styled wines with a hint of magical Southeast Asia.
Then go home. Not even the US government calls it Myanmar– it’s Burma. This is the country where, a hundred and fifty miles due east in Chin State, there’s a brutal effort to Burmanize the ethnically distinct denizens. Refugees are pouring into neighboring India desperate to escape the soldiers. They bring stories of rape, of kidnapping, of enslavement. They bring stories of porterage, a term borrowed from the colonial powers who had previously held sway. The Red Cross has recently been sent packing, journalists are allowed in country only on special junket tours and somehow, despite a collapsed economy and more trade sanctions than any country not on the axis of evil tour, the new capital city Naypyitaw has flowered in central Burma. It was built by slaves and it was paid for by a junta which, paranoid, clings to power by surrounding its population with machine guns. This has been the situation since 1962 when the recently independent republic (released from Britain after WWII) was overrun in a military coup. Drink your wine and then go home.
Or just sit home and drink your Pepsi. One of the failed formative moments in my personal history was the politicization of my sister who learned about the PepsiCo boycott. In the early 90’s Pepsi established a foothold in Burma and opened a bottling plant in the now former capital to flood the citizens with soda. To do this PepsiCo would have to establish ties with the State Law and Order Restoration Council, the governing head of the military junta in control who had been criticized across the globe after brutally crushing student protests in 1988 and, after deciding to hold free elections in 1990, refused to accept the outcome and instead imprisoned the pro-democracy leader and nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. Boycotts were being called on all American companies invested in Burma, my sister was incensed and I refused to give up my three or four Pepsis a day. My mother, however, after weighing both sides of the issue (one side being mine) decided I could drink whatever the fuck I wanted but she wouldn’t buy the 12 packs anymore. Thankfully I was, by this time, employed.
Now this makes me cringe but at the time I was a little more selfish and, for reasons best explained as hormonal, uncaring. Eventually consumer pressure forced Pepsi to spin off the Burmese operation and they left the country and Pepsi began to trickle back into my life free of charge. I was a little more fortunate than the people still left in the jungle, building barracks and hauling ammunition.
Of course there’s still places like Nigeria where Shell and assorted oil companies (California’s Chevron for one) continue to back a military regime which has protected oil refineries from saboteurs and peaceful protesters, union workers, poets and nature. Since the 50’s Nigeria has been the feeding grounds for international oil companies who has, sometimes tacitly and sometimes overtly, backed an ever-changing string of generals who pocket the profits, pacify the population and who are eventually replaced by yet another.
The Ogoni people of the oil rich Niger River delta suffer like the people of Burma suffer but I guess people need their gasoline more than my mom needed to pay for my Pepsi. Not that it’s impossible, for people to boycott an oil company, After Exxon had their boo-boo in Alaska they quickly became the world’s most unpopular place to shop (now Exxon/Mobile is the world’s largest company) but the heartstrings tug tighter when you see otters suffocating in crude than when you see people oppressed, starving, beaten and dehumanized.
Perhaps Mr. Morsbach believes that by bringing economic opportunity to the oppressed Burmese people the country will improve until democracy can no longer be constrained. That’s how we won the cold war, right? Make McJobs and democracy will come? Conservative economists champion this variety of social improvement whenever any industrial giant invests in the third world. The workers get paid ten cents a month but it’s better then them starving in the street. Being able to buy that DVD player for only fifty bucks and the higher GDP make those 14-hour day, seven day a week live in a company barrack and eat at the company canteen out of earnings a-ok! It seems that economics wants to be a branch of science unattached to every social science and float free in a peaceful sea of data. Nice cold hard ones and zeros that never smile but never cry. So while the WTO plots its continuing course with calculators, keeping the shades drawn to not have to look at the locals rioting outside, enterprises like Myanmar-Vineyards hopes to cash in on the growing Chinese wine market where a burgeoning middle class banks capital on the backs of the provincial workers fleeing poverty from the interior. Great! China, stake-holder of Tibet, practitioner of executing political criminals, banning religious groups and democratic demonstrations alike, will feel just like home for Mr. Morsbach and company.