Coalition questions U stock shares

by Emily Dalnodar

Through letter-writing campaigns and protests, the Minnesota Free Burma Coalition hopes to persuade the University to divest its stocks worth more than $1 million in a company doing business in Burma.
Their concern stems from hostile living conditions for the country’s citizens. The coalition, which is a hybrid of students, Burmese refugees and people concerned about the situation in Burma, has written several letters to the University and plans to stage a protest on Northrop Mall at noon today. Members want to encourage others to take notice of a situation they say is growing in international significance.
Currently, the University has 14,000 shares of stock in Total Oil, a French-based company. The stock has a $1.2 million market value. Total is building an oil pipeline, which is almost completed, extending 218 miles across Burma’s numerous ecosystems. Some of these ecosystems include tropical forests with endangered species such as tigers, elephants and rhinoceroses.
Burma, a country about the size of Texas, lies in Southeast Asia and borders Thailand and China. It has been in constant turmoil since a military regime known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council established rule in 1988. Since then, the regime has devastated the land and murdered thousands of Buddhists, according to documents provided by the Free Burma Coalition.
These claims are contested by Burmese government officials, who say military action has been misinterpreted. They also fear increased economic sanctions will do more harm than good.
In addition to the accounts of oppression, the U.S. Department of State released a report detailing the regime’s connection to heroin drug traffickers. According to the report, “Burma remains the largest producer of heroin worldwide, and it remains the main overall source of heroin in the U.S.”
These things prompted dozens of foreign companies to pull out their investments in Burma, including Texaco, Apple Computers, Levi Strauss, Walt Disney and Pepsico.
“The military regime relies on foreign investments. The money goes directly to the military to explore and exploit the Burmese country,” said Mick Schommer, an active member of the coalition and a University graduate student in liberal studies.
Leader of the National League for Democracy and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, has called for the “immediate and complete withdrawal of all foreign businesses with Burma.”
The University, via its investments, takes part in keeping this regime in power, Schommer said.
The University does not actively seek out these stocks, however. Nor does it make the actual stock decisions. There are numerous investment firms who purchase the stocks for the University, said Sheila Warness, associate director of Assets Management.
The firm who purchased the Total stock was Marvin and Palmer Associates. Officials at that firm did not return repeated calls for comment.
While the University currently does not have a committee to look over the stocks and discuss social concerns relating to them, many of the investing firms do. Even with these committees, international stocks rarely get discussion.
“There aren’t watchdogs at the international level to the same degree as the local or national level,” Warness said. “My guess is that there isn’t the same degree of freedom in countries related to child labor or forced labor. They don’t have the same kind of requirements to make that information public, like the United States,” she said.
Despite the lack of public information the University still has a responsibility to find out what the investment money goes to support, said Drew Hempl, director and founder of Minnesota’s branch of the international coalition, which he established in Minneapolis in 1995. “Since this is such an important issue the University should use this as an opportunity to implement a socially responsible review board,” he said.
Warness said that if the Board of Regents cared to restrict investments, they could do so. For instance, she said, the University decided not to invest in South Africa during its apartheid.
According to reports from the Free Burma Coalition and the U.S. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, the oil pipeline runs through many native homelands, and people are driven out by the military to make way for the project. Furthermore, the reports claim citizens are forced to work on the pipeline that has taken their home, and usually under harsh conditions for little or no money.
The military is using death as an alternative for people refusing to work on the pipeline, Hempl said.
“The University is for students. The University’s money is allocated for students. And that money is going to slave labor and genocide of ethnic groups,” Hempl said.
Taung Tun, deputy chief of mission to Mynamar (the new name the military gave Burma) disagrees. “These allegations have never been proven right,” he said. He maintains the military government is just trying to establish discipline and order to the citizens. Tun said he believes these rumors are spread by people “just jumping on the bandwagon.”
Despite Tun’s views, many communities continue to rally for the federal government to pass sanctions curtailing activity with foreign investments made in Burma. President Clinton has already recalled the U.S. ambassador to that country, a sign of especially strained relations.
Several groups — including the Minneapolis DFL party, the Minnesota Green party, Women Against Military Madness and the Human Rights Center — work in conjunction with the coalition to lobby at the local level hoping to affect change at the national level.
“It’s not like our government sits down with Bill Clinton and says ‘So, what are we going to do to solve all those problems in the world today?'” said Jason Misik, a member of coalition. “We have to take the initiative at the local level first.”
The primary initiative is getting corporations to pull their investments out of Burma and stop the flow of money to the military.
“It’s not just caring about corporate investment, though, it’s a strategy in the international campaign to get the military out of there,” Schommer said. “It’s our No. 1 tool.”
The coalition, along with the other groups, urged the Minneapolis City Council to sign a form letter to put a stop to investments with connections to Burma.
Other city councils have done the same thing, including Boston, Dallas, San Francisco and Madison, Wis. Since then, the federal government has taken notice and responded. President Clinton, in July 1996, signed a sanctions amendment denying Burma any U.S. assistance. There is also a conditional amendment forbidding any further investments in Burma if the regime harms Aung San Suu Kyi or causes any other “large-scale” violence or oppression, according to section 569 of the U.S Senate Burma Sanctions Amendment.
Furthermore, Minneapolis Councilman Jim Niland has introduced a Selective Purchasing Agreement into the Minneapolis City Council. At the council’s meeting on Jan. 23 he will present the agreement to be voted on by other council members.
If passed, the agreement will “effectively halt the city government from engaging in business with any institution or corporation that trades or invests in Burma,” according to Minnesota Free Burma Coalition documents.
“This is not effective,” Tun said, adding that the local citizens, not the military, suffer — from loss of jobs. “If I had a problem with the way my neighbor was running his home, I would go over there and talk to him, not shut him out.”