From Michelle Weinberg's, "For Every Action," Fall '99 From Michelle Weinberg's, "For Every Action," Fall '99It is a place where the most fundamental human rights are violated by an oppressive, corrupt government. Where petty criminals are sentenced to arbitrary terms in unsanitary, overcrowded prisons. Where the media -- and virtually all other forms of expression -- are tightly controlled by the government and political gatherings are illegal. Where female citizens are trafficked as prostitutes by the government and religious minorities are harassed. Last spring, students from Penn's Free Burma Coalition and the Progressive Activist Network requested that the University divest its holdings in these companies. Their request received support from the Graduate and Professional Student Association and the Undergraduate Assembly, which issued a statement of support last March. Unfortunately, the University ignored the opinions of its own students. A number of cities and universities have already passed "Free Burma" business resolutions, joining organizations around the world campaigning to end investment in Burma. Northwestern, Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Penn State, American and others have declared that they will not enter contracts with companies operating in Burma. These resolutions and boycotts have resulted in many companies severing ties altogether with Burma, including Texaco, Amoco, Pepsi Co., Motorola, Apple Computer and Walt Disney. However, the University of Pennsylvania has refused to take such a stand. The Board of Trustees -- charged with managing Penn's investment portfolio -- needs to consider the implications of Penn's Burma investments and their impact on the country's citizens. People who have attempted to speak out against the government have been repeatedly repressed. On August 8, 1988, student demonstrators flooded the streets to demand that the military regime be replaced by a democratically-elected government. The peaceful demonstrations ended when soldiers fired into the crowd, killing thousands. Little has changed since 1988. Reports by the United Nations, Amnesty International and other organizations have repeatedly detailed a gruesome list of abuses, including murder, rape, torture, detention without trial and forced labor. Farmers are forced to double and treble rice production, overtaxing the land. The government then levies a quota for sale to the state at below-market prices. The regime exports the rice at world market prices and pockets the difference. According to a 1997 U.N. Human Development Report, the government spends over 222 percent more on its army than on health and education services combined. But the issue is also financial. If boycotts of UNOCAL -- the company is currently a key target of "Free Burma" protesters -- drive the company's stock price down, Penn's endowment will suffer. The University has a responsibility to consider the effect of boycotts upon their investment. More importantly, a University responsible for the leaders of tomorrow should act in a socially responsible manner. An institution which stands for education, democracy and freedom should not have equity ties to one of the world's most oppressive regimes. After severing ties with Burma, the Levi-Strauss Company issued a statement proclaiming, "It is not possible to do business in Burma without directly supporting the military government and its pervasive violations of human rights." In a response to the student divestment campaign last spring, Executive Vice President John Fry cited the Trustees policy -- set in 1980 -- regarding such external issues, the "Response by the University as an Institution to External Issues." This policy states that due to the diverse interests found in a large institution, the University cannot take a moral stand on such issues. However, this policy also states, " the University of Pennsylvania will take institutional positions only under the most unusual circumstances and only on those issues which are of the greatest social concern and deal with the most fundamental human rights." Apparently the University Trustees feel that the horrendous situation in Burma does not "deal with the most fundamental human rights." What does that "institutional position" say about our University?Comments powered by Disqus
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