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United Methodists find oppression in Myanmar

3/27/2001 News media contact: Linda Bloom · (646) 369-3759 · New York

By Kelly Martini*

NEW YORK (UMNS) -- Women are especially oppressed in the country of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, according to three United Methodists who traveled there recently.

But because of the fear of the government and the lack of access for journalists, the story of women and children in the Southeast Asian country isn't being told.

Marilyn Clement, an executive with the Women's Division of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, and two Women's Division directors, Judy Nutter and Judith Siaba, discovered some of the stories during an early March trip to investigate the living conditions for women in a country known for human rights abuses and slave labor.

"I was surprised at how people were so afraid to talk," Clement said. "It was the most repressive situation I've ever witnessed. Citizens are required to report to the police if they plan to spend a night away from home."

The trip was an outgrowth of the Women's Division signing on to an amicus brief, or a friend-of-the-court brief, supporting the state of Massachusetts in a Supreme Court case last June. The case went to the Supreme Court after 600 anonymous corporations under the name of the National Foreign Trade Council sued Massachusetts for giving a cost preference to bids from companies not doing business in Myanmar. Massachusetts was trying to discourage companies from doing business in Myanmar because of human rights abuses.

Massachusetts lost when the Supreme Court ruled that states cannot use their purchasing power to influence companies doing business in countries known for human-rights abuses if the federal government has already established foreign policy in dealing with the countries.

Nutter, Siaba and Clement found that the military government's oppression of people, especially women, is severe and needs attention.

"In order to repress dissident ethnic groups, the government of Burma allegedly is sending HIV-positive soldiers into areas where these ethnic groups live," Clement said. "The soldiers rape the women and impregnate them with the hope of wiping out whole ethnic groups with the AIDS virus."

According to the U.S. State Department's human rights report, the government of Myanmar throughout the year repressed ethnic minority citizens in brutal and often arbitrary ways.

"There continued to be credible reports, particularly in ethnic minority-dominated areas, that soldiers committed serious human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings and rape," the report stated.

The displacement of hundreds of thousands of ethnic minority people because of the construction of a UNOCAL pipeline is also a major concern for those tracking human rights abuses, according to Clement.

"Many of those who were displaced by the pipeline are being forced to work to build it. It's called government-provided labor, but in reality, it's slave labor," she said.

Bob Stumberg, professor of law at Georgetown University and author of the amicus brief supporting the state of Massachusetts in the Supreme Court case, noted that slave labor is not uncommon in Burma.

"The government of Burma has pressed over 5.5 million people into slavery in the past decade," he said. "That's 11 percent of their population. Eleven percent of the population in the United States were slaves in 1860.

"This is a government that wants to compete in terms of its economic and international trade based on a slave-type subsidy," he added. "It obviously raises moral concerns for anyone doing business in Burma."

Amnesty International reported that children between the ages of 8 and 15 are building temples, and ethnic minority civilians are being forced to construct infrastructures under brutal conditions.

Clement said that United Methodists need to keep the people of Burma in their prayers and look for ways to effect change in that country.

"We now know that advocacy to make changes in already-established trade policy can only be done at the federal government level and at the individual level," she said. "We need to band together as the people and use our buying power to effect change in countries such as Burma. And we need to write letters, call and visit our congressional leaders and the president to ensure that trade policy strictly bans products produced by countries using slave labor."

President Bush has the authority to enforce such a ban, Clement said. "We need to help him do it. All of our trade policy must consider human rights abuses, environmental considerations and fair labor practices."

The Women's Division represents United Methodist Women, a million-member organization whose purpose is to foster spiritual growth, develop leaders and advocate for justice. Members raise more than $20 million a year for programs and projects related to women, children and youth in the United States and in more than 100 countries around the world.

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*Martini is executive secretary of communications for the Women's Division.

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