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Students Push Burma Bill

City Council calls for end to state investment; Harvard senior cites ‘obligation’

A Harvard student from Myanmar, formally known as Burma, speaks at the Cambridge City Council meeting last night. The student asked to remain unidentified for fear of retaliation against her family still in Myanmar.
A Harvard student from Myanmar, formally known as Burma, speaks at the Cambridge City Council meeting last night. The student asked to remain unidentified for fear of retaliation against her family still in Myanmar.
By Sarah J. Howland, Contributing Writer

A resolution backing a Massachusetts House of Representatives bill that would forbid further state investment in Myanmar was unanimously approved by the Cambridge City Council yesterday.

Burmese students from Harvard and two other colleges joined four Cambridge residents at last night’s weekly meeting to urge the Council to pass the resolution. The bill, H. 2729, was first introduced by State Rep. Byron D. Rushing (D-Boston) in January. It would also support shareholder resolutions calling on corporations to promote democracy in Myanmar.

“As a leader in human rights and democracy, Massachusetts has an obligation to support the people of Burma,” a senior using the pseudonym Shanti Maug told the council last night. The senior, the president of Harvard Burma Action Movement, said she did not want her real name or photograph made public out of concern for family members still in Myanmar.

In recent months, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has been rocked by a wave of protests against the military government, prompting renewed calls for democracy from some foreign governments and organizations.

Under the bill, Massachusetts would use its power as a shareholder in companies that operate in the country to pressure Myanmar’s military junta to restore democracy.

The state employee retirement fund owns stocks in Chevron Corporation, the only known corporation with ties to Myanmar in the state’s portfolio, according to Rushing, formerly of the Class of 1964.

The bill would require the State Treasurer to investigate and divulge the state’s other investments in Myanmar.

“When you have socially responsible investor resolutions, it’s very rare that they win. But the companies react to them if they have a significant number of shares voting,” Rushing said in an interview yesterday. He added that the state’s stake alone was probably not large enough to have an effect.

Massachusetts currently holds 611,000 shares of Chevron Corporation worth a total of $89 million, according to Rushing.

Harvard held 172,24 shares of Chevron Corporation as of its June 30 report to the Securities and Exchange Commission. These would be worth over $17 million today.

Maug said she thought that the military government would respond to commercial pressures.

“Under the junta, industry is stagnating, so corporations have the influence. They can say, ‘We want genuine dialogue,’” Maug said.

Since August, monks in Myanmar have been protesting increased oil and gas prices imposed by the military junta. Last month, government soldiers tear-gassed crowds, arrested monks, and killed several protesters.

The government, which came to power after a coup in 1988, is accused of human rights violations and of limiting freedom of expression.

The bill approved by the council yesterday follows in the footsteps of a 1996 law, also introduced by Rushing, that barred Massachusetts corporations from doing business with companies tied to Myanmar. The U.S. Supreme Court struck it down in 2000 on the grounds that it gave a state unconstitutional power in foreign affairs.

Councillor Marjorie C. Decker, who introduced the resolution, said she hoped the Cambridge’s support would influence other cities to take a stand.

“To be silent feels really wrong,” she said.

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