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Prominent environmental and human rights advocate to headline UC Berkeley Charter Day ceremony
16 Mar 2000

By José Rodríguez, Development Communications

Click here to link to the Charter Day Web site

BERKELEY-- A 29-year-old Burmese exile recognized as one of the world's most effective advocates for the environment and human rights will headline the University of California, Berkeley's annual Charter Day ceremony.

The ceremony, which honors the founding of the University of California, will be held next Thursday, March 23, at Zellerbach Auditorium. The public and the UC Berkeley community is invited to attend the free event, but tickets must be obtained in advance from the Cal Performances Box Office at Zellerbach Hall.

Keynote speaker Ka Hsaw Wa was arrested and tortured by the Burmese military regime and subsequently won acclaim as a defender of the Southeast Asian rain forest and its native inhabitants.

After fleeing Burma, the activist took on the name Ka Hsaw Wa, which means "White Elephant" in Burmese. The white elephant is an ancient, indigenous symbol associated with benevolent leadership and respect for all people.

In 1999, Ka Hsaw Wa won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for casting the spotlight on abuses by the military government of Burma and the exploitation of the natural environment. In 1995, he co-founded EarthRights International, based in Washington, D.C., which documents abuses by the dictatorship and works to educate indigenous communities at the grassroots level in Southeast Asia and the general public worldwide.

In a landmark U.S. District Court ruling in 1997, EarthRights International succeeded in blocking the Yadana gas pipeline project - the largest foreign investment in Burma. It would have traversed the

Tenasserim rain forest, inhabited by diverse ethnic peoples and home to the tiger, the Asian elephant, the rhinoceros, and many other rare and endangered species.

The pipeline was backed by a consortium of transnational corporations, including U.S.-based Unocal. The historic ruling was the first by a U.S. judge over a private company for alleged human rights abuses committed abroad.

Ka Hsaw Wa's speech at UC Berkeley will highlight Charter Day, the 132nd anniversary of the signing of the legislative act creating the University of California. Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl will preside at the ceremony, which will also feature the presentation to alumni of two major UC Berkeley awards: the Elise and Walter A. Haas International Award and the Peter E. Haas International Award.

The Haas International Award honors a UC Berkeley alumnus who has achieved distinction in his or her work abroad; winners must be natives and residents of a foreign country. This year's recipient is Urvashi Sahni, an educator and leader in efforts to reform schools in India. She received her PhD from UC Berkeley in 1994.

Sahni's educational reforms have had greatest impact in her native state of Uttar Pradesh, where she has served as a consultant to the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF). She received her doctoral degree from UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Education.

This year marks the inaugural of a new UC Berkeley prize - the Peter E. Haas Public Service Award - that honors an alumnus who has contributed significantly to his or her local community. The first recipient of this award is Dwight Steele, who obtained his undergraduate degree in 1935 and his law degree in 1939 from UC Berkeley.

Since the 1960s, Steele has worked as a volunteer for a variety of environmental and planning efforts. Most notably, he worked to stop the filling of San Francisco Bay in the 1960s by helping to establish the Bay Conservation and Development Commission. He also has worked to preserve and protect the natural resources and beauty of Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada.

The Charter Day ceremony, which will run from 10:30 a.m. to noon, features a procession by faculty, staff, students and alumni of UC Berkeley, as well as music by the California Marching Band.

On March 23, 1868, Governor Henry H. Haight signed an act into law that established the University of California as a public trust, tying the health and future of the state with that of the university. The act paved the way for excellence in higher education in California.

Charter Day has been celebrated every year at UC Berkeley since 1874, when UC President Daniel Coit Gilman first declared it a UC holiday.


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