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October 23, 2001
Students Push University of Virginia Out of Unocal
    by Mark Thomsen

Unocal is feeling pressure from activists because the company continues to do business with Burma's ruling military regime. (part one of a two-part article)


Last week, students at the University of Virginia (UVA) succeeded in persuading UVA's administration to divest the University's 50,000 shares of stock in Unocal (ticker: UCL), a California-based oil company that is doing business with Burma's (Myanmar's) military rulers. Students were pushing for divestiture because of the company's complicity in human rights violations inflicted by the military.

"The University did not tolerate financial support of South African Apartheid in the 1980s, and it should not tolerate slavery in Burma today," said Andrew Price, President of the Virginia chapter of the Free Burma Coalition. The Free Burma Coalition is an activist organization working to motivate others to take a stand against Burma's ruling regime.

The UVA students received some unprecedented help in their campaign. Six Nobel Peace Prize laureates, including Jody Williams and His Holiness, The Dalia Llama, sent a letter to the University to support the students' call for divestiture. Signatories of the letter had become interested in UVA after speaking at a Nobel Peace Prize laureates' conference held there in 1998 entitled "Bringing Together Great Hearts and Minds."

The laureates deplore Unocal's role in supporting Burma's military. They wrote in the letter, "While Unocal turns its back on the conditions surrounding its pipeline, its partners, the illegal military junta, are torturing, killing, raping, and enslaving thousands of people."

Unocal is the largest U.S. corporation that still chooses to do business with Burma's ruling military. Unocal owns a 28.4 percent stake in the $1 billion Moattama Gas Transportation Company, which built the Yadana pipeline to carry natural gas from Burma to a Thai government-owned power plant located in Thailand.

The pipeline crosses 39 miles of Burmese mainland. According to documented evidence compiled by EarthRights International and other human rights groups, the military relocated several villages and committed numerous atrocities, including forced slavery, rape, and murder during the construction of the pipeline. The pipeline was completed in 1998.

According to EarthRights International, the Burmese state-owned Myanmar Oil & Gas Enterprise owns about 15 percent of the Moattama Gas Transportation Company. Cash flow from the pipeline should become positive in 2002, and the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon estimates that the ruling regime will receive between $150 million and $400 million annually. The Embassy also estimates that the regime will allocate as much as 50 percent of that amount to the military's budget.

Burma's ruling military is often called a rogue regime because it overturned the country's legitimately elected government. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's political party won Burma's 1990 democratic election, but the election result was later annulled by the military. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Price laureate, has been held under house arrest since 1990. She has called for foreign companies to avoid Burma until basic democratic institutions are restored.

The Free Burma Coalition is continuing to mobilize students around the world toward pushing universities and colleges to divest from Burma. One of the rallying points for students is the continued imprisonment of Min Ko Naing, who was a student of Rangoon Arts and Sciences University in the 1980s. Min Ko Naing has been in prison since 1989 for organizing a nonviolent student movement that came close to winning Burma democracy. Amnesty International considers him a prisoner of conscience.

Jeremy Woodrum, Director of the Washington office of the Free Burma Coalition, says one of the organization's next campaigns will involve having high school and college students ask their teachers and professors to write to TIAA-CREF. They will ask TIAA-CREF, which manages pension funds for educators and researchers, to vote proxies in favor of shareholder resolutions that support Unocal's leaving Burma.

Said Mr. Woodrum, "It would seem to be a no-brainer that professional educators do not want their pension money supporting forced labor and other human rights abuses."

Tomorrow's article will examine how an investor-based campaign is pressuring Unocal to leave Burma.

 

 
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