Saturday, September 29, 2007

Free Burma

A video obtained by CNN shows Burmese soldiers beating a demonstrator

Since President Bush tightened sanctions against Burma earlier this week, American news organizations are again taking an interest in this isolated Asian country. Here's a short essay I wrote in college on the Free Burma movement:

Exiled Burmese are using the Internet to “free Burma,” as the bumper stickers say. Using chat rooms, ListServs and Web sites, people keep one another informed and recruit new support. As one book notes, “Technology has internationalized the struggle . . . open[ing] up new avenues for” resistance.

The Internet is also important as a psychological buttress. As one activist remarked, “No feeling is more powerful than to know that you are not alone in your fight for justice.” Indeed, very few of us have the courage of that unknown rebel in Tiananmen Square, standing alone to block a column of Chinese tanks in 1989.

Activists have also hit Burma where it hurts the most: The wallet. Taking cues from the campaign against South African apartheid in the 80s, and, before that, in the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the 60s, such “selective purchasing” aims at crippling the Burmese economy by curtailing crucial foreign investment and thus isolating Burmese markets.

In one famous example from 1995, a handful of undergraduates persuaded Harvard to reject a contract with Pepsi, which did business in Burma with the regime’s approval. It took two years, but ultimately these students persuaded Pepsi to leave Burma. Similar grassroots efforts swayed Walt Disney, Eddie Bauer, and Liz Clairborn, as well as two-dozen cities across America, and culminated in a 1997 federal ban on new investments in Burma by American companies.

Indeed, given our interconnectedness and interdependence today, few businessmen want to invest in an unstable economy, held together by a dictatorship. Such nonviolent activism epitomizes what Ayn Rand called the “power of the dollar.”