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Political Activism on Campus Takes on a Cyberspace Twist

'Birks' have replaced earth-shoes but human rights still rile students

BRAD SIMPSON, a PhD candidate in history at Northwestern University, spends most of his spare time mobilizing fellow students to protest human- rights abuses in faraway East Timor.

A doctoral student named Zarni at the University of Wisconsin in Madison devotes about 15 hours a day to on-line organizing, rallying classmates behind a campaign to divest US firms from his native Burma, also known as Myanmar.

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At Ohio State University, Brad Watson, a junior in sociology, leads 20 Ohio student groups in demonstrations and letter-writing campaigns aimed at freeing political prisoners identified by the human rights organization Amnesty International.

No one is claiming to have reached the heights of antiwar fervor achieved in the Vietnam era. Central America is no longer a cause celebre. But political activism on the American college campus is alive and well in the 1990s. It is increasingly sophisticated, high-tech, and, at times, just as effective as its tie-dyed '60s exemplars in making politicians and corporate executives take notice.

''Student activism is on the rise,'' says Roberto Guerra, Midwest campus coordinator for Amnesty International. ''A lot of students are realizing the US frequently plays a role in human rights situations overseas.''

This weekend, for instance, more than 300 student activists from across the Midwest gathered at Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., for a day of training, speeches, and advice on campus organizing run by Amnesty International. The gathering was the largest regional get-together of student activists ever held by Amnesty, says Mr. Guerra.

And last Friday, hundreds of students at 75 universities, including Stanford, Harvard, Yale, and Northwestern joined an international day of protest against the military dictatorship in Burma, says Mr. Zarni, head of the Free Burma Coalition.

Students in cities around the country dumped out cans of Pepsi and staged sit-ins at PepsiCo Inc.-owned subsidiaries such as Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Kentucky Fried Chicken to protest Pepsi's investment in Burma. They also called on alumni associations to cancel tours to Burma. Alumni at Northwestern and the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) have agreed; Yale alumni are considering the demand.

Organizers seek a total divestment of PepsiCo., the oil giant Unocal, and other large US firms from Burma. They say they hope to mobilize a student movement similar to the one that pushed US companies to pull out of South Africa in the 1970s and '80s.

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''Essentially we want to re-create what went on during the anti-apartheid movement,'' says Zarni. He and fellow activists are working to form a broad alliance with environmental, women's, and human rights groups opposed to the Burma regime, as well as with labor unions that are battling PepsiCo.'s suppliers.

''Rank-and-file union workers in Chicago, Madison, Milwaukee, and Decatur [Ill.] are all actively encouraging a boycott or a Pepsi dump,'' says Todd Price, a University of Wisconsin student who is working to garner union support for the Burma campaign.

Unlike in past decades, today's student activists rely heavily on the Internet and other modern technology as organizing tools.

Amnesty, for example, has its own World Wide Web site. It recently began distributing an interactive CD-ROM to educate students about high-priority cases of human rights violations. Moreover, the Burma action day was orchestrated almost entirely on the Internet.

''In seven weeks this campaign has pretty much exploded,'' says Zarni. ''Without the Internet, this would have been impossible.''

From his small room in Madison, Zarni connects quickly and cheaply with activists around the world. ''If I can't mail out campaign posters on time, I just get on the net and send people our site address and let them download it,'' he says.

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