by Johnn Tan
How would you like it if your only way of knowing that your daughter was alive was through a radio broadcast?
Ohmar Khin (or, in Asian nomenclature, Khin Ohmar) was just your ordinary chemistry student. Born and raised in Burma, Ohmar was walking to class one day on the campus of Rangoon Arts and Science University when she heard from others about some student unrest at nearby Rangoon Institute of Technology.
"I never imagined what would happen to me, let alone that I'd be here in the United States eight years later, standing in front of you all," she said to a group of UNC students on April 16.
What happened to Ohmar was that she and her friends decided to show some support for their fellow students across town. Little did she know what was in store for her and her comrades. On August 8, 1988 (now known as "8-8-88"), in a dramatic foreshadowing of China's Tian An Men Square a year later, Ohmar and hundreds of thousands of other Burmese students took to the streets, calling for democracy against the ruling military regime, now known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). This military junta has been in power since 1962, and took on the name of SLORC in 1988 (later, they also changed Burma's name to Myanmar).
That same year, in a show of force that not even the movie "Beyond Rangoon" adequately captures, the SLORC brutally quashed the 8-8-88 student uprisings.
Tens of thousands of Burmese students were slaughtered. Those that weren't, like Ohmar Khin, fled the country in droves, escaping to the borderlands, where they joined ethnic Karen and ethnic Mon camps that have waged guerrilla warfare against the military regime for decades.
Let alone the trauma of having to flee to a guerrilla army camp, leaving their families was a heartbreaking experience for many of the students. The family is highly revered in Asian culture (indeed, family names precede "first names" in Asian nomenclature). Ohmar's mother pleaded with her not to leave: "Why you? You can't make a difference. Why don't you just forget about it and be a good student?" These same words echo familiar in the ears of Asian-American student activists.
But Ohmar could not remain, knowing what happened to her comrades, and knowing her people live under the shadow of fear and without justice and democracy. With much sadness, she left her mother and fled to the border camps with tens of thousands of other students. When the SLORC overran these guerrilla camps, the students continued their weary trek, this time traveling beyond the border to Bangkok, Thailand. There, thousands of students applied for refugee status at the United Nations in Thailand and then applied for resettlement to other countries, including the U.S. But only a handful were granted. Ohmar Khin was one of those lucky few.
Upon arrival in the U.S., Ohmar did a radio interview with Voice of America. VOA is listened to by much of the Burmese population, as an alternative to the one military-run Burmese radio station.
It was through that VOA broadcast of Ohmar's interview that her mother finally learned that daughter Ohmar was alive and well. Today, Ohmar has completed her chemistry degree at a college in Massachusetts, and now interns at Refugees International based in DC.
On the side, she actively campaigns against the SLORC, letting people know of its continuing atrocities since 8-8-88. For example, in 1990, the SLORC nullified the results of the first free elections held in Burma - an election that they oversaw yet still lost 82%-2% at the hands of the opposition party National League for Democracy (NLD), led by 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Newly-elected President Suu Kyi had already been under house arrest by the SLORC since July 1989, and only recently released last summer due to mounting international pressure.
But today, Suu Kyi and the NLD party continue to be denied any leadership or power in Burma. Gross human rights violations such as those committed in relation to the 8-8-88 uprisings only escalate. The SLORC continues to exist because it is being financed by foreign currency from transnational corporations. Hence, Suu Kyi and the legitimate government of the NLD party have called repeatedly for foreign corporations to withdraw from Burma, because doing business there means doing business with the outlaw SLORC regime.
Many U.S. corporations have already taken heed, including Coca-Cola, Levi-Strauss, and Liz Claiborne. But many remain - notably Pepsico, Unocal (Union 76), Texaco, and Heineken. In addition to an international consumer boycott of these latter corporations, shareholder activism has pressured many universities, cities, and states to pass South Africa-style selective purchasing legislation against these same corporations.
Last October, here in Chapel Hill, at the national conference for the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC), a half-dozen Burmese students gathered to plot the newest phase in their fight against the SLORC. Moe Thee Zun, leader of one faction of the Bangkok-based All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF), a guerrilla organization composed of Burmese student refugees, visited the U.S. briefly for this occasion to join Ohmar Khin and hundreds of SEAC activists to launch the U.S. Free Burma Coalition, now headquartered in Madison, WI, and headed up by Burmese student Zar Ni.
Since that time, the "Free Burma" campaign has exploded on college campuses all across the country - nearly 100, to be exact.
Target #1: Pepsico.
Due to Burma's nearly worthless currency, to repatriate its profits, Pepsico must buy cash crops and sell them abroad for hard currency to pay for imported supplies for its bottling operations. Recent reports by the United Nations and human rights groups note that forced labor and land expropriation is pervasive in Burma's agricultural sector.
Early this year, UCLA students forced the cancellation of an alumni association trip to Burma, as part of the SLORC's "Visit Myanmar 1996" campaign. In March of this year, Stanford students prevented the opening of Pepsico-owned Taco Bell on their campus. One month later, Harvard students forced their dining services to drop a $1 million contract with Pepsico.
"What you have is America's 'best and brightest' challenging Pepsico based on the facts," says Simon Billenness, senior analyst at the Boston-based Franklin Research & Development Corp. "Students are at the heart of Pepsi's target market. Pepsi is extremely vulnerable."
Locally, UNC students are urging the administration to vote in favor of shareholder proxies that favor broad human rights guidelines for corporations in which they hold stock - for example, Resolution 6 for Pepsico. Students are also hoping to get UNC to drop its vending contract with Pepsico, which comes up for renewal in July.
Target #2: Unocal.
To avoid a situation like what happened in Nigeria to Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni people through collaboration between Shell Oil and the Nigerian dictatorship, an international boycott has been called against Unocal of the U.S. and Total of France. These corporations are financing a billion-dollar pipeline which originates in Burma and terminates in Thailand. Whole villages have been destroyed and people relocated to make way for the pipeline and accompanying railroad. Along the way, forced labor and gross violations of human rights by the SLORC are the norm.
Local citizens, led by the Orange County Greens, will be presenting cases to the Carrboro and Chapel Hill Town Councils to adopt selective purchasing ordinances against corporations doing business in Burma, just as Santa Monica, Berkeley, Madison, and (just recently) Ann Arbor and Oakland have. Similar legislation is pending in San Francisco and New York City's councils as well as Massachusetts' state legislature.
The ordinances could affect anything ranging from the mundane (removal of Pepsi machines from city-owned buildings or not using Texaco/Unocal gas in town vehicles) to the controversial (renegotiating the Chapel Hill-Carrboro public school system's private contract with Marriott, which has a national contract with Pepsico).
To show solidarity for Ohmar Khin, other Burmese refugees, and the people of Burma, and to join in efforts locally to get SPOs passed by the Towns of Carrboro and Chapel Hill or to pressure Pepsico shareholder UNC-CH to proxy vote against Pepsico's involvement in Burma or to drop its Pepsi vending contract, please contact SEAC at 967-4600.
We will not give up until Ohmar can go back home to Burma and tell her mother in person that she is still alive and doing well.
To affect UNC's investment in Pepsico stock, call or fax:
Chair of the Board of Trustees Director of Investments William J. Armfield, IV Wayne F. Morgan (910) 378-9700 (919) 962-2002 (910) 378-0067 fax (919) 962-0180 fax Chancellor Michael Hooker (919) 962-1365 (919) 962-1647 To affect UNC' vending contract with Pepsico, call or fax: Associate Vice Chancellor Contracts Administrator of Business Biruta Nielsen Carolyn W. Elfland (919) 962-2403 (919) 962-7244 (919) 962-1656 (919) 962-0647 fax Student Body President Aaron Nelson (919) 962-5201 (919) 962-7236 fax To affect the Carrboro and Chapel Hill selective purchasing ordinances, call your Town Council members.
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