THROUGH their investments, PepsiCo Inc., Texaco Inc., and Unocal Corporation are supporting a despicable regime whose violations of human rights are among the most egregious in the world.
Burma (also called Myanmar) is controlled by a military dictatorship that grabbed power in 1988. It calls itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). After an overwhelming defeat at the polls in 1990, it imprisoned the leader of the victorious party, the Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and continued to rule the country by force.
It has built an Army of nearly 350,000 soldiers, who torture, rape, enslave, and summarily execute Burmese citizens. Governmental organizations, such as the US Department of State and the United Nations; nongovernmental groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch; and world leaders, including the Nobel Laureates the Rev. Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, all have condemned the illegal and despotic government of Burma.
''The Burmese believe they are a master race, and they are out to exterminate us,'' I was told by Gen. Bo Mya, leader of the Karens, an ethnic people who have been fighting for their freedom in Burma for over 40 years.
It has been argued that PepsiCo, Texaco, and Unocal do not support the abusive activities of the SLORC against its own people. They are nonpolitical institutions whose purpose in Burma simply is to do business. In fact, some argue their presence helps the Burmese people prosper and has a civilizing effect upon the country as a whole.
I am sure these companies and others treat their employees and those with whom they have business relations with decency and respect. I do not doubt that Burmese people working directly for these companies are enjoying relatively good salaries. But the effects of these large investments do not stop there.
Firms from the United States invest hundreds of millions of dollars in Burma. A civilized government would use this income to meet a variety of needs affecting the country and its people. In contrast, the SLORC is currently using slave labor to build a railway and has spent $1.5 billion on arms from China in the last couple of years.
Burma is a poor country; large investments have political ramifications. Much of the money goes to support the SLORC and its war against the Burmese people. For this reason, a number of US companies have stopped doing business in Burma. They include Macy's, Amoco, Eddie Bauer, Levi Strauss, and Liz Claiborne. Ms. Claiborne herself has said ''we cannot support the activities of this country's government.''
SEVERAL US institutions have acted against commerce with the SLORC. The City Council of Berkeley, Calif., has prohibited the city from doing business with companies operating in Burma. Massachusetts is considering similar legislation. The University of Washington supported a stockholder resolution on this issue; Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass., and Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., have taken similar actions.
Whether the US should ban all trade with Burma is a difficult question because it involves economic and political agreements with other countries, particularly Thailand, China, and Singapore. But we, as individuals, can refuse to have any of our money go to the SLORC. We can choose not to deal with those who deal with the SLORC.
In a recent article, Mr. Tutu, the archbishop of South Africa, concluded: ''The international community acted decisively in the case of apartheid in South Africa with spectacular results. It cannot do less in the case of Burma. What is the world waiting for?''
What are we waiting for?