Burma Update

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Indigenous ethnic minorities make up approximately one-third to one-half of the population of Burma. Despite their large numbers, these indigenous groups are subject to continual attacks under the oppressive regime of The State Law and Order Council (SLORC). Military offensives against these ethnic minorities have not relented as the ruling junta appears to have adopted a policy of "Burmanization." One of the ways this effort has manifested itself has been through regulations which mandate that ethnic minorities, such as the Chin, not be allowed to speak their native languages in schools. In addition, United Nations human rights observes have also documented the continued use of forced labor within areas inhabited by indigenous ethnic minorities in building roads, railroads, and other infrastructure.

Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, continues to call for a halt to foreign investment in Burma as a strategy of working against the SLORC. Viewing the situation in Burma as a 1990s parallel to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, students and other activists have picked up this call, pressuring their respective institutions to take action. In 1995, Berkeley and Santa Monica, California, as well as Madison, Wisconsin, voted to boycott goods and services originating in Burma. They were joined this year by San Francisco and Oakland, California and Ann Arbor, Michigan. Similar legislation is pending in New York City as well as in the state of Massachusetts, which would represent the first statewide measure.

Such legislation shares credit with institutions like Harvard University in pushing American corporations to withdraw financial investment from Burma. As a result of increasing criticism and Harvard's decision, at the request of student activists, not to award PepsiCo a 5-year $1 million contract, PepsiCo recently announced plans to sell its 40% interest in Pepsi-Cola Production Myanmar (PPM). To the dismay of many activists, PepsiCo still maintains a franchise agreement with PPM. This means PepsiCo will continue to sell syrup to Burma-based PPM as well as allow PPM to use PepsiCo's soft drink trademarks in Burma. While student groups are encouraged by American corporations' response to their hard work, they continue to insist that public relations moves are not enough. Students plan to escalate their call for consumer boycotts of PepsiCo and other companies doing business in Burma. (Additional U.S. corporations which continue to do business in Burma include UNOCAL, Texaco, Total, and ARCO.)

Burma sanction bills, both titled the Burma Freedom and Democracy Act, are now pending in the U.S. House and Senate. The Senate bill (S1511) is sponsored by Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY). The House bill (HR 2892) is sponsored by Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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