The people of Myanmar, commonly called Burma, have a problem that Jeremy Woodrum wants to expose.
A military regime runs the country using ethnic cleansing, slave labor and forced migration as tactics to control the people.
Woodrum has been to refugee camps in Thailand where millions of Burmese people have fled to avoid persecution. He returned to the United States with a message of awareness.
Woodrum, coordinator of the Free Burma Coalition, spoke about his Thailand experiences Tuesday to more than 40 people at the University’s Law School.
After three visits to the refugee camps, Woodrum is now touring Minnesota to raise awareness about the issue.
“Right now Burma is a huge tragedy,” Woodrum said. “It’s ruled by one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships.”
Coalition member Eric Nelson said he became compelled to join the cause after hearing stories of the atrocities done to the people of Burma.
In 1948, a year after the assassination of a Burmese pro-democratic leader, the country gained its independence from Great Britain. Fifteen years later, Burma came under military control, resulting in 5 million people being forced into slave labor, executions and massacres of ethnic minorities.
People began fleeing the country, seeking refuge in nearby Thailand.
Another problem affecting the people of Burma is big business. Several U.S.-based multinational corporations have set up shop in Burma. To do that, companies needed to provide cash for the projects, which the military regime used to further empower themselves.
California-based UNOCAL oil company is one of them, Woodrum said. The company is currently being sued in California court because of the alleged human-rights abuses.
Mick Schommer, director of the Free Burma Coalition of Minnesota, said local activists investigated the University’s portfolio. They discovered the University had a significant investment with Total oil, another large company doing business with Burma.
“From the very local standpoint of the campus, student tuitions were going into investment of the very troubling situations,” Schommer said.
The University has sold off Total stocks, but several other local companies, including 3M, King Koil and Carlson Holdings, are also investing the finances into Burma, Schommer said.
Three major problems members of the Free Burma Coalition see with the Carlson company’s investments are the military regime’s necessity for cash, use of slave labor to boost tourism and the regime’s false legitimacy — presenting themselves as a fair dictator.
In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed a statute restricting any further U.S. businesses from investing in Burma. Also, Minneapolis agreed to the Burma Selective Purchasing Agreement, which requires a city or a state to stop purchasing products from any companies in Burma.
Since many students at the University are not aware of the problems in Burma, Woodrum and other members of Free Burma Coalition organized the “Burma Freedom Summer” program, which allows students all over the nation to come to Burma and experience the situation firsthand.
Ada Simanduyeva covers international perspectives and welcomes comments at [email protected]