NEWSMAKER: Against Burma's regime - John Jackson, Director, The Burma Campaign UK

Gideon Burrows

At the annual meeting of British American Tobacco, one man stood up in front of hundreds of people to criticise the brutal military dictatorship of Burma, with which the company does millions of pounds of business each year.

"Burma is not one of the world's most attractive regimes," he told shareholders.

He added that companies that do business with the government there are often "unattractive" to investors.

It will come as no surprise that John Jackson, the 38-year-old director of The Burma Campaign UK, agrees with these comments. He's campaigned against human rights abuses there for most of his adult life.

But it was not Jackson who was speaking - it was the non-executive director of BAT, Tory MP and former Chancellor Kenneth Clarke, who was forced into admitting Burma is an "extremely unpleasant regime" by campaigners at the meeting. "Clarke has had a bad press this morning," Jackson told me when I met him in a London cafe the next day. "He pretty much said BAT will do business with anyone as long as it's legal and it's profitable."

Jackson co-founded the Burma Campaign UK in 1991 to work against a military dictatorship that represses 50 million people. Across Burma, millions are forced into labour. There are more than 50,000 child soldiers and thousands of political prisoners. For Jackson, the campaign is a personal one.

He was brought up a Catholic by his Burmese mother and part Burmese father, and still has friends in the country. "Some of my very close friends are Burmese exiles," he says. "I've had experiences inside Burma which mean I will never leave this issue."

With an income of less than £120,000 a year, and only two full-time and two part-time staff, it is often a David and Goliath battle. In the biblical legend, David toppled the giant using intelligence rather than muscle.

The Burma Campaign also performs above its weight.

"The main thing that we have is strategy. We don't spread ourselves too thinly, we don't run on every issue, and we choose our targets carefully - looking at the points of pressure."

It's a method that has reaped rewards. Underwear company Triumph pulled its investments out of Burma just two months after the organisation launched a savvy protest poster.

"People who had nothing to do with the Burma Campaign were putting the posters up on their walls," he says. "The pictures got into the tabloids and hit most of the trade press and the broadsheets, as well as papers in Europe. Triumph capitulated very quickly."

Diesel and River Island, and the oil giant Premier, also pulled out of the country following pressure from the organisation - proof, says Jackson, of the power of images and clever media techniques.

"Truth is a powerful weapon, and all we do is give it a really good delivery system. We look at what will make people learn something about an issue they know nothing about, how we can make them feel something, and then how we can make them act."

"Humour is critical. You have to inform them, but where possible we give them something more, an ability to act so they don't feel numbed by the issue."

Small organisations suit Jackson, who has been director of the charity since 1998 when he moved there from Christian Aid. But he adds: "It's not really about small or big, but whether there's a challenge - whether the subject matter is interesting, and whether you can have an impact".

Burma is a harrowing issue, and Jackson insists that campaigners need to escape from their subject matter sometimes, not least because some detachment brings benefits to the organisation.

"There has to be a good balance between people's work life and non-work life, otherwise you can lose perspective. If you never see what you are doing from outside, you lose the ability to upgrade your skills."

He admits his relationship with other groups in Burma is sometimes rocky.

"We've a lot of respect for charities that deal with the structural causes of the poverty," he says. "But some agencies have a sticking-plaster approach and don't look at the fundamental reasons for what people there face."

But it is for companies such as BAT, which claim to have a social conscience while investing in brutal regimes, that Jackson reserves his harshest criticism. "Corporate social responsibility is meaningless for a lot of companies. It's all about processes, using the jargon of 'stakeholder engagement'. We say you must have a bottom line when a dictatorship rapes, tortures and kills."

By lobbying governments and taking direct action against companies, Jackson hopes his campaign will help bring an end to that dictatorship. One of the campaign's other roles is to support the democratically elected opposition to the Burmese dictatorship, led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

"The louder and more forceful we are in the public arena, the stronger her arm is in any negotiations she has with the dictatorship. We will continue to strengthen her arm until the democratic forces and the military in Burma are sitting around the table and negotiating towards democracy."


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