In 1988, ten thousand protesters were massacred in Burma. The international community barely noticed. Multinational corporations are now embracing Burma's bloody military regime and the situation is still unknown to most of the world. PepsiCo, one of the worst offenders and most blatant supporters of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), Burma's ruling junta, has been given an exclusive contract by Harvard Dining Services. As part of this deal the Undergraduate Council has been offered $10,000 of PepsiCo's money. They should not take it.
Burma (also known as Myanmar) has one of the worst human rights records in the world. Although the most prominent dissident, Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has been freed, pro-democracy leaders continue to be imprisoned. Forced labor and forced relocations are commonplace; often whole villages are destroyed to make way for new development or the American-sponsored oil pipeline. Extrajudicial executions, torture, rape and forced prostitution are regularly practiced by the armed forces. During one incident last month, 11 villagers were killed, two women were stripped and tortured and three people were arrested.
Despite SLORC's atrocious human rights record, some might argue that Western investment ultimately helps the people. There are good reasons to believe this is not true, especially in the case of PepsiCo. Foreign investment is heavily taxed in Burma, such that considerable revenue goes directly to the government. PepsiCo's Burmese partners are known to have close SLORC ties. Burmese law specifies that any foreign corporation employing more than five Burmese must hire only from a government-supplied list, thus eliminating the possibility that Burma's democrats might benefit from the presence of the multi-nationals.
There is little doubt where the government's revenue goes. A former US ambassador to Burma describes SLORC as "so single-minded that whatever money they obtain from foreign sources, they pour straight into the army while the rest of the country is collapsing." PepsiCo contributes to the government in more subtle ways as well; they sponsored the first trade fair in Rangoon in 1994 and have been the sole sponsor of athletic competitions. One can only guess how Pepsi's red-white-and-blue symbol is interpreted.
PepsiCo may also be contributing to forced labor; in order to convert its worthless Burmese revenue into hard currency, PepsiCo buys agricultural goods in Burma and sells them on the international market. These goods may be the products of forced labor farms that are common in Burma, but PepsiCo will not acknowledge its sources. Other companies have pulled out of Burma by now; Levi-Strauss, for example, pulled out in 1992, saying that "it is not possible to do business in [Burma] without directly supporting the military government and its pervasive violations of human rights."
Investment in Burma is not PepsiCo's only offense. In 1994 Greenpeace reported that PepsiCo was shipping discarded plastic bottles from California to India--bottles with the "California Redemption Value" labels still visible. International trade in plastic wastes is forbidden by Indian law and international law. PepsiCo claims, however, that the bottles are all recycled and thus it is not waste. An Indian recycling firm does take the bottles and some are recycled, amidst working conditions far below US standards. But they admit that much of the plastic is nonrecyclable; the toxic byproducts of the process stay in India, while the recycled bottles are returned to the US.
What does this mean for Harvard? What are the implications of signing PepsiCo, a company that made Multinational Monitor's Ten Worst Corporations of 1994? Harvard has always been up for sale. Although the contract should never have been signed, when the choice is presented Harvard will choose budgetary considerations over human rights and the environment. PBHA is also receiving $10,000 from PepsiCo and it does not have the luxury of considering refusal. Public service at Harvard is bankrupt and desperately needs this infusion.
The Undergraduate Council, however, is in a different position. The council has no required expenditures; it is not in the public service business and it is supposed to represent the conscience as well as the opinions of the student body. It has been offered a substantial sum of tainted money, money representing the blood of the Burmese people and the destruction of the environment. The money should be refused.
It is not easy to argue that $10,000 should simply be turned down. We must not let the money--and it is a lot of money--could our judgment. The students of Harvard College will not be sold, our silence will not be bought. A stand should be taken against the actions of PepsiCo and similarly irresponsible corporations. Their actions are wrong, and we do not need their money. It has often been argued that, with this money, the Council can finally put on another large concert. Are we willing to sell out for one night of questionably popular music?
If indeed the money is accepted, the moral burden of the Undergraduate Council is increased. Any money accepted carries with it the burden of helping to rectify the wrongs perpetuated by PepsiCo. The money is in part a product of their irresponsibility; it should be used to improve the situation. There are a lot of people in the world, including many groups in Burma, that need this money a lot more than the Undergraduate Council does.
The pro-democracy movement in Burma is not dead, but it is substantially weakened by the imprisonment of many of its leaders and eight years of brutal repression. Aung San Suu Kyi herself, the charismatic woman who has led the peaceful struggle for democracy, could use donations of money or supplies. Refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border need medical supplies in order to treat the casualties of SLORC shelling. Student groups in exile need funds to help raise awareness worldwide about the plight of the Burmese people.
PepsiCo's profits cannot be ethically used for a local concert. Although the Undergraduate Council is charged with improving student life, it is also charged with "affirming the student citizens dignity and worth." Only the brashest self-indulgence would lead the Council to compromise our dignity by gleefully embracing PepsiCo's donation without thinking twice about its origins. If the Council does not act responsibly, the blood of the Burmese people will be our hands, too.
David S. Grewal '97-'98 is the co-chair of the Environmental Action Committee. Marco B. Simons '97 is the chair of the Undergraduate Council's Student Affairs Committee.
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