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USA Today Article
- Subject: USA Today Article
- From: Zaliwin@xxxxxxx
- Date: Thu, 02 May 1996 22:35:00
USA Today 29 April 1996
By: Joe Urschel
College Cry: ?Free Burma?
Internet links campuses in ?90s-style protest
Front Page picture caption: ?Crusader: Zarni, a student at the University of
Wisconsin, Madison, has dedicated himself to alerting the world to the human
rights abuses in his homeland of Myanmar.?
This time, the whole world is not watching.
Nevertheless, a tiny campus protect movement, taking place almost entirely
outside the media glare, is engaged in a ?60s-style revolt that has
universities, corporations and international political groups snapping to
Using the interconnectedness of the modern cyber-university, a failed
Hollywood movie and the business savvy of socially conscious investor groups,
protesters are bring worldwide pressure on the insular and brutally
repressive nation of Myanmar -- formerly known as Burma.
Last week, PepsiCo became the latest US company to announce it was
extricating itself from ties there, and the United Nations formally denounced
the country?s human rights abuses. A bipartisan bill barring further U.S.
investments there and imposing sanctions is pending in Congress.
But few students took to the streets to shout about the victory. No campuses
were shut; no armories torched.
The e-mails were burning up the Internet, though as a modern-day student
rebellion celebrated its accomplishments not with bullhorns and fist-pumping,
but with the furious clatter of fingers on the keyboard.
At Harvard, a $1 million Pepsi contract has been canceled in part because
students contend the company?s investments help prop Myanmar?s repressive
At Stanford, students stopped Taco Bell (owned by PepsiCo) from opening in
the student union. At Northwestern, students pressured the Alumni
Association to halt its Myanmar trips.
Given all the wars, all the troubles, all the large-scale repression in the
world, how did the USA?s campuses come to turn Myanmar into the South Africa
of the 1990s?
?Seldom do you have a case as clear cut as Burma,? says Harvard?s Marco
Simons, 20, head of that school?s free Burma Coalition. ?There?s a very
clear connection between government and repression.?
?The military regime is committing every form of human rights violation known
to humanity: imprisonment without trial, torture, campaigns against villages
and ethnic minorities,? says Jane Jerome of Amnesty International. People
?are beaten and raped, children are snatched from the streets.?
Still, the country got little notice in the media or on campuses until the
past year or two. Then it just seemed to balloon. Bewildered parents found
themselves by ?Free Burma? and ?Boycott Pepsi: banners as they escorted their
high school age students scouting prospective schools.
Meanwhile, the Clinton administration condemned Myanmar?s military
dictatorship, and placed the country on the list of international ?outlaws?
that includes Libya and Iraq.
American companies such as Eddie Bauer, Levi Strauss, Liz Claiborne and
Macy?s began severing their business ties.
The genesis of the movement appears to be a single student at the University
of Wisconsin. He is a 32-year old student named Zarni, who fled his
homeland in 1988 after the military government arrested and killed about
3,000 opponents, including pro-democracy student activists like himself.
Now a doctoral student, Zarni (one word, though it is often spelled Zar Ni),
heads and umbrella group called the Free Burma Coalition. He founded it in
September 1995, promoted it in October at a student environmentalists?
conference, and by October 27, choreographed ?Burma Action Day? at dozens of
campuses. The group now has chapters at 70-90 U.S. campuses.
Myanmar scholar Edith Mirante, of Portland, Oregon, in part credits the movie
?Beyond Rangoon? for glamorizing the cause.
The story of the 1988 massacres, told through an American tourist played by
Gen-X actress Patricia Arquette, might have been a box office dud, but it
ignited campus idealists with its docudrama depictions of the crushing of
the democracy movement and its saintly portrayal of Aung San Suu Kyi, the
opposition leader who was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.
Castle Rock, the film?s distributor has given the Free Burma Coalition
permission to use the film.
?I was leafleting outside movie theaters and people would make donations
right away because they were horrified,? says Simons.
But mostly, the cause has spread on the Internet.
?The Internet is really the mainstay,? says Zarni, who spends 15 hours a day
at his computer, networking with other campus activists. ?It?s really cheap?
perfect for a shoestring movement with no cash for phone and fax bills.
The Free Burma Coalition Home Page
(http://danenet.wicip.org/fbc/freeburma.html) offers would-be activists a
little of everything. Order information for ?Boycott Pepsi? stickers,
congressional testimony, interviews and speeches by Aung San Suu Kyi, links
to far-flung campus leaders. WebActive, a Seattle-based on-line journal that
appraises Internet activism, recently named Free Burma?s homepage its siteof
?We saw the information on the Internet, but we don?t have any comment on
that,? said a spokesman for Myanmar in Washington, who declined to speak for
attribution. The country offers no reaction to the protesters or their
?It?s become one of the first cyber-campaigns,? says Simon Billennes, senior
analyst with Franklin Research & Development in Boston, an investment firm
that handles about $450 million for institutions. ?The students are all
hooked upon the Net, so they all talk to each other.?
Billenness helps coordinate shareholder pressure in conjunction with
activists on campuses, and pushes municipalities for selective purchasing
Four cities have passed laws barring contracts with any business that has
interests in Myanmar, he says. The companies include Texaco, Inc., Unocal
Corp., Atlantic Richfield and PepsiCo. So far, Berkely and Santa Monica, CA;
Madison, WI; and Ann Arbor, MI have such laws.
Billenness had been tracking the situation in Myanmar for years, but when
Zarni and the Internet came along, awareness of the issues there grew almost
?If something happens in Rangoon, I?m going to know about it the next day by
reading my e-mail,? he says. ?The Internet has proved to be an invaluable
tool for organization.?
It enables even small cadres of activists to effectively push their cause on
Protesters continue to pressure Pepsi, despite its decision to sells its
bottling plant in Myanmar, because the drink will still be sold there through
a separate licensing agreement with a businessman they say is connected with
Pepsi denies it is bowing to pressure by selling its plant. ?We made the
decision that we felt made the most business sense,? says spokesman Keith
But business experts think Pepsi had more to lose by staying in. ?Boycotts
can be very damaging? says Al Ries, a New York marketing consultant. ?The
last thing a company like Pepsi wants is to alienate college students.
Especially since it?s positioned as the soft drink... of the young
Still the protests continue.
Doug Steele, 20, a first year law student at Georgetown, has introduced a
resolution to the student government urging them not to do business with
companies that do business in Myanmar. Today, a university committee will
vote on whether to bar investment in companies with ties to Myanmar.
At Stanford, Free Burma member Nick Thompson says, ?Our mail goal is to
convince Stanford to vote its proxy shares in favor of the Burma resolutions
presented to all the shareholders who have money in Unocal, Texaco and
And all of it pretty much goes back to one man who fled his country and
started the first revolt in cyberspace.
Zarni shows ?why this couldn?t have worked without the Internet,? says
Thompson. ?He?s one Burmese guy sitting in Wisconsin and there?s probably
not a Burmese guy within 300 miles. E-mail got people talking to him. It
didn?t matter that he was in Wisconsin and everyone else was in California.