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Myanmar Human Rights, 29 Nov 1993

THE EARTH TIMES

November 29, 1993

Myanmar dissidents despairing

Military brutality bitterly protested

By Ashali Varma

In a situation that has many parallels to Haiti, the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee is about to consider the political situation in Myanmar where a military junta has barred an elected government from power for the last five years.

The military group, called the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) stands accused of grave human-rights violations, including torture, slave labour, murder and rape.

“Burma’s problems may not be as severe as Bosnia’s but Burma’s problem is a chronic case,” said Dr. Sein Win. “For 42 years we have had no democracy and since foreign journalists are not  allowed in, the dimension of the problem is not known outside  Burma.”

Dr. Win is the leader of the National Council of the Union of Burma, (NCUB), and he spoke in a recent interview with The Earth Times at the offices of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in New York. Like many of his fellow dissidents from the country officially known as Myanmar, he lives in political exile from his homeland. A nation of 42 million people, Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in Asia with a per capita GDP of about $200, even though it is rich in natural resources consisting of crude oil, precious stones, natural gas, copper, tin and teak. The military has been in power for the last 31 years.

 In another interview with The Earth Times,  Maung Maung, Secretary of the Federation of Trade Unions of Burma, said: “In 1988 we had a foreign exchange reserve of $10 million. In 1992 it was $600 million from oil investors but the military junta invested none of this in the people. There are no new schools, hospitals or clinics, no new industry – they spend it on arms.”

Dissidents contended that while corruption isn’t new, the number of uniformed  businessmen is rising, and the more entrenched they become the harder it will be for the opposition democratic front to overthrow the military.

In fact when the SLORC   supervised elections in 1990, the party led by 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi,  the National League for Democracy, the major opposition group – won a landslide victory but was not allowed to come to power. Aung San Suu Kyi was put under house arrest, scores of members of parliament, students and monks who protested were also arrested, tortured and imprisoned.

Dr. Thaung Htun, who is with the All Burma Students Democratic Front, said:

“Thousands of people fled to the border to escape the military and even today there are students hiding in the jungles and trying to resist, braving bouts of malaria and difficult conditions.”

The SLORC has declared that they will hand over power only when a “strong constitution” is in place –which in effect means that it will ensure that the military continues to play a critical role in Burma’s politics, according to the dissidents.

THE EARTH TIMES

DECEMBER 9,1993

Now the hard part

BY ASHALI VARMA

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica—After a year-and-a-half of painstaking preparations, Maurice F. Strong’s Earth Council was formally inaugurated here in a fitting tribute to his vision for advancing the accomplishments of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), widely known as the Earth Summit.  Amid ceremonies featuring delegates from every continent, and three days of extended discussions on the implementation of the 1992 Rio Accords, the Council unveiled a three-point “plan of action” that would establish the new organization as a genuinely global body to monitor how governments and private-sector parties carry out the Earth Summit mandate.

The need to keep alive the “spirit of Rio” was highlighted in a message sent to the Council of Costa Rica: “We want that all the principles, ideas and plans of action of the Council be converted to reality—we are part of a great experience and now we are on a path that must guarantee a more sustainable, sure and equitable future for all of humanity.” The message was read out at the National Theater on November 29, where hundreds of guests gathered for the formal opening of the Earth Council.  Many guests had been committed participants in the Earth Summit process.

Tommy T. B. Koh a Council member and chairman of UNCED’s Preparatory Committee said: “From East Asia I bring a message of hope. Not very long ago, we too were poor and backward. It is possible for developing countries to take themselves out of poverty and catch up with the First World.  But we must never prosper at the expense of the Earth. I regard the Earth Council as the custodian of the results of  Rio.”  Many in the audience seemed moved by Koh’s eloquence.

The private-sector Council represents an effort to “facilitate and support peoples’ initiative in behalf of the Earth,” according ’10 Alicia Barcena of Mexico, executive director of the 20-member body. In addition 10 the Council’s members, the organization named a panel of “eminent advisors,” who include former Presidents Jimmy Carter of the US and Julius K. Nyerere of Tanzania.

The Council’s objectives were set forth by its chairman-and moving spirit-Maurice Strong: “We will foster links between local, sectoral and global agendas. We will not speak for but seek to amplify the voices and the influence of those who are too often unheard or unheeded in the policy and decision-making processes which affect them.”

In an interview later with The Earth Times, Strong added: “The idea of the Earth Council came during the Rio process, when it became apparent that even if governments agreed at Rio, they will have so many other preoccupations, that unless we have some basis for continuing to keep these issues in front of them, their commitment would wane.”

Strong said that the very fact that the Council came into being in a developing country-Costa Rica-and had been given diplomatic status by the Costa Rican Congress (and a pledge of 100 million Costa Rican colons, or the equivalent of US$500,000 for an office), suggested that developing countries that had taken the lead in taking the message of Rio seriously.

The hospitality of the Costa Rican government, and local people, was apparent to all visitors who showed up in this Central American city for the Earth Council inaugural. The three days that participants from governments, business and non- governmental organizations spent here were marked net only by day-long discussions and drafting sessions. Numerous social gatherings were hosted as well. Many participants had come from as far away as Africa, Australia, India, Philippines, China, Singapore and Japan to be part of the process, and despite their jet-lag they enthusiastically plunged into the relentless work sessions.

The backgrounds of participants for the inaugural session of the Council reflected the major concerns of Agenda 21.

Among those attending were: Justice Elizabeth Evatt of Australia, President of Australia’s Law Reform Commission and member of the UN Human Rights Committee; Gordon Goodman of Britain, former Chairman of the Stockholm Environment Institute; Jim MacNeill of Canada, former Secretary General of the World Commission on Environment and Development (and editorial chairman of The Earth Times); Mahbub UI Haq of Pakistan, the chief architect of UNDP’s annual Human Development Reports; Saburo Kawai of Japan, President of the International Development Center of Japan; Chief Bisi Ogunleye of Nigeria, Executive Director of the Country Women Association of Nigeria; Maximo T. Kalaw of the Philippines, President ofthe Green Forum; Khethiwe Moyo Mhlanga of Zimbabwe, National Coordinator of Africa 2000.

Participants decided that the Earth Council would not duplicate activities but would act as a catalyst for NGOs and other agencies. It would also take on the task of disseminating information to NGO groups around the world by supporting national and community networks for sustainable development. Strong said: “The main priority is to do two things. One, to produce some very short-term products that can make a useful impact. We need some new thinking in the area of finance, and one of the proposals we’re working on is to actually expose the vast misuse of funds in the existing fiscal system which belies the idea that there is no money available. There are vast amounts of money being wasted to subsidize activities that are not sustainable. We are going to try and expose this in a very specific way which hopefully will make a difference in the way governments allocate budgets. Two, we will create a system to help the grassroots NGOs to have access to each other, because they have very little basis for communicating with each other.”

Strong said that the Council was creating alliances with existing agencies which are already involved with sustainable development and have been especially helpful to the Earth Council-such as the Inter American Institute on Cooperation for Agriculture, the World Conservation Union, the Society the International Development and the Stockholm Environment Institute, and Earth Day International.

Task forces were created to review the Council’s role and activities.

Even while the Council members were engaged in their discussions, the Earth Council was faced with its first challenge. The indigenous peoples of Costa Rica made a formal request for the Council to intervene in their behalf in a matter that would threaten their lands. The government was planning to build a hydro-electric plant which could flood 8,000 hectares of their land and also give mining rights to companies which would  affect their forests. Jose Carlos Morales, the President of the World Council for Indigenous People, said: “ We know that as a specialized agency to protect the environment, the Earth Council will take up our cause.”

The issue was taken up by the Council participants and it was decided that the Council would intervene in this case.  As Strong later said to The Earth Times, “We have offered our good offices to try and resolve a local issue.  We have to be careful not to generalize on that, because we don’t have the capacity to do this on a vast scale throughout the world, but in our own country headquarters there is perhaps a special reason to do so.”

THE EARTH TIMES

DECEMBER 9 1993

Bells ringing people shouting horns tooting

LANDSCAPE OF PLENTY

San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, is a somewhat dilapidated city which sprawls for miles but most points are just an hour away from lush landscapes, rolling hills and volcanoes. Situated on a plateau 3,000 feet above sea level, it is a cool 70 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year, an enviable climate for a city in Central America. The city nestles in a valley where some 60  percent of Costa Rica’s 3 million people live. The beauty of the place can be breathtaking. In fact, at higher levels the scenery reminds one of Switzerland. Once you cross the mountains the ecosystem changes to magnificent tropical rain forests at the fringe of the Pacific Ocean.

SAVORY CUISINE

The participants present at the Earth Council inauguration were treated to excellent Costa Rican and Spanish dishes organized by the Inter American Institute on Cooperation for Agriculture (IlCA). The Institute not only made their premises available for the conference but also hosted all, the lunches.

THINNING WALLET

President Rafael Angel Calderon of Costa Rica was in Washington while the Earth Council met in San Jose, meeting with President Bill Clinton. Although Clinton proclaimed that this was the first time in the 20th century that a US President was

meeting a group of democratically elected Presidents from Central America (Calderon

was in a group of five), some of the participants at the Council meeting here noted with dismay the decision of US State Department to close down 21 USAID missions. One survey showed public support in the US for foreign-aid eroding  significantly with the end of the Cold War. In 1985, annual US foreign-aid was $18.5 billion; in 1993, the figure is $14.4 billion, which represents only about 1 percent of  total Federal spending and encompasses everything from population assistance to disaster relief to contributions for the UN system. About 40 percent of this aid is earmarked for the Middle East  (primarily to Egypt and Israel under arrangements dating back to the Camp David Accords of 1978), and the former Soviet Union. Now the Office of Management and Budget has told the State Department that it must reduce foreign-aid by another 6.5 percent in the next budget. Latin American countries face foreign-aid cutbacks of up to 60 percent. For development specialists, such news is most unwelcome.

DANCING IN THE STREETS

The National Theater built in 1897 is one of the most beautiful buildings, in San Jose.  The frescoes, painted ceilings and ornate carvings transport one to a different era.

The inauguration of the Earth Council took place here. After the ceremony we heard a

lot of rejoicing in the streets. Cars, fire engines, merry revelers crowded the narrow streets of the city, with bells ringing, people shouting and horns tooting. Some Council

members thought it might have something to do with the event but we soon found out

that the Costa Ricans were rejoicing because their national team had defeated Mexico in soccer by a score of 2-0.

ATTENTIVE GRACE

The Council Secretariat showed grace under pressure: Elizabeth Garfunkel, who

transcribed the proceedings, was an invaluable asset for reporters, Aziyade Poltier-Mutal, the chief information officer, was equally helpful to the media; Mirian Vilela,  who arranged all our transportation, deserves special thanks for keeping dozens of itineraries in control, and P. Krishnamurthy, the taciturn Indian who welcomed us at the airport, was also there to see us off. Being a whiz in six languages, he was  able to say “adieu” in many tongues.  With the great demands on this patience, Krishnamurthy surely breathed easier after the meeting.

THE EARTH TIMES

DECEMBER 31,1993

BUSINESS AND TECHNOLOGY

Civic group monitors business

BY AHSALI VARMA AND JACK FREEMAN

Dealing responsibly with the environment is more than a moral imperative; it’s good business to Alice Tepper Marlin, founder and head of the Council on Economic Priorities.  And when she and her council speak, business leaders –and millions of investors and other people as well—pay attention.

The CEP has issued, for the second year in a row, al list 10 corporations dubbed ‘America’s Least Wanted,” selected because the organization considers their pollution records among the worst in environmentally risky industries.  The list includes General Electric, Exxon and International Paper.

Tepper Marlin emphasizes that there is a very close link between the environment and economic factors, “Environment has become an important factor in screening companies,” she said “It also has become the screen most likely to increase stock prices and earnings records because there are a lot of factors involved that could contribute to profitability over a long-term period.”

The CEP has been in the business of rating companies for their environmental and other “ethical concept” policies for a quarter of a century.  Judging from the acceptance enjoyed by its publications, it has been doing it very successfully.  Its paperback book “Shopping for a Better World—The Quick and Easy Guide to Socially Responsible Supermarket Shopping” has sold more than one million copies since 1989.

The organization has also published a version for students, and a series of “research

reports” on issues of corporate social responsibility. It has 3,800 members and annual revenues of $1.3 million. Its supporters say they admire its down-to-earth approach

and the way it speaks out without shrillness or sanctimony. Tepper Marlin says she got the idea for CEP while working as a Wall Street securities analyst a few years after her

graduation from Wellesley College. One of her clients, a religious institution, did not want to invest its pension fund’s assets in companies supplying arms for the Vietnam

war, but she discovered to her surprise that such information about companies was not

readily available. That is when she developed the concept of a “peace portfolio,” which led to the formation of CEP. The organization later expanded its role to include screening of companies’ performance on other ethical and social issues, including the environment. The success of the council, she says, can be measured by one figure: there is now $700

billion in funds in which some elements of social-responsibility screening have been

applied. Similar research organizations have sprung up in Japan, Germany and England.

She is quick to point out that not all of CEP’s reports are negative. Recently, it praised

Georgia-Pacific for what the report called its commitment to reform and public disclosure.