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The heart of Burma

About the author
Maura Stephens has been a professional journalist and editor since 1977.

I first heard of Han Lin in the spring of 2004. He had been working as a janitor for several years at the university where I work as the magazine editor, but he was assigned to a different building, and our paths had never crossed. A colleague told me that Han was about to embark on an unusual mission and might make an interesting story for the magazine. I decided to meet him and find out.

Han Lin’s English was heavily accented and not too sophisticated; it was hard to understand him. But I could sense his goodness and passion even after our first short conversation. I learned that he had been a teacher in his native Burma, as had his wife, Htay Htay Yee, who now works at a children’s day care centre. They’d been in the United States for six years; three of their six children were currently attending school here on our campus — where tuition is free for children of staff and faculty members who qualify academically. Amazingly, all three, despite having been in the United States such a short time and having had to learn a completely unfamiliar language, had qualified for acceptance into this pretty competitive university. Another son worked here in the same department as his father, one was a student at another university, and the youngest was still in primary school.

Also by Maura Stephens in openDemocracy:

Letter to my Baghdad friends

Broken links in Iraq

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When I met him Han was preparing for a “long march for freedom” from Albany, New York, to New York City — a 290-kilometre walk — that would be followed by a hunger strike at the New York headquarters of the United Nations. The hunger strike, Han said, would be indefinite in length: “to the death if necessary.”

Despite a lifetime in journalism, many years in New York City, and a fair amount of traveling, I’d never met anyone from Burma and knew little about the country. (Burma was renamed “Myanmar” by the country’s military regime in 1989, but the democracy movement worldwide and many major media outlets continue to use “Burma” as a symbolic protest against the regime.) And I had certainly never met anyone who believed so passionately in anything that he’d be willing to starve himself to death for it.

What could be so bad in Burma that would motivate Han Lin and a half dozen other Burmese activists to walk for twenty days and then stop nourishing their bodies?

A quick background: Burma was colonised by Britain, which ruled the country as part of India. During the second world war Burma had a brief flirtation with Japan before the popular General Aung San began negotiations for independence with Britain. He succeeded, and the country was granted its sovereignty in 1948, but Aung San was assassinated by a rival just before the handover of power.

The country functioned as a parliamentary democracy for just fourteen years until another general assumed power in 1962, ostensibly to prevent Burma’s ethnic groups from seeking autonomy but in practice to rule with an iron fist. Many attempts were made to overthrow the military ruler and reinstate democracy, but he held firmly onto power until a peaceful nationwide populist uprising in 1988.

That was the year in which everything changed for Han Lin and his family, as well as for the other activists in his campaign, most of the several hundred thousand Burmese expatriate refugees around the world, and the 50 million or so remaining in the country. On 8 August (8-8-88), the military regime responded to the uprising with brute force, killing thousands of peaceful demonstrators and driving many more into exile.

Before and during the 1988 people’s uprising Han Lin lived with his wife and children in Palaw, in southwestern Burma. He was a leader of the student movement for democracy. “I believe in democracy,” he told me. “I wanted my students to understand it. Most of them have never lived in a situation with democracy and peace, so they don’t know what it means. I told them about freedom and democracy and human rights like in the United States and other countries. They began to understand.”

Han Lin, along with many other democracy leaders, fled from the murdering military into the safety of the jungle about 160 kilometres east of his home, near the Thai border, on the way crossing mountains and rivers swollen by monsoon rains. He had to leave Htay Htay Yee and the children (there were only five of them at the time), ages 5 to 15, behind.

Two years later, after she had withstood raising the children alone despite loneliness and constant worry and frequent harassment by military thugs, Htay Htay Yee was threatened with death if she did not reveal Han Lin’s whereabouts. She decided it was no longer safe to stay in the only home she had ever known. One night she sent the three older children off in one direction while she went with the younger two in another direction, to avoid suspicion. They met up successfully, and together they reached Han Lin and his fellow exiles in their jungle hideaway.

The family lived in the jungle for six years; their youngest child, ThuYein, was born there.

In the meantime the military junta became known (euphemistically) as the “State Peace and Development Council.” In 1990 it held an election, presumably believing (like so many despots and tyrants have blindly and arrogantly believed under such circumstances, throughout history) that it would win. Instead it lost, in a landslide (392 of 485), to the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

This greatly displeased the regime, which has not only kept Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD from taking power but has kept her locked up on and off ever since, from 1989 to 1995, again from 2000 to 2002, and again now since May 2003. Her fellow NLD members and supporters are regularly killed or incarcerated.

Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Her followers worldwide, including Han Lin and his family and friends, are campaigning to bring attention to her situation. They hope international pressure will win her release and a regime change so that democracy can be restored in Burma. As Aung San Suu Kyi says, “Justice is a dream. But it is a dream we are determined to realize.”

I published a story about Han Lin last year. He and his fellow activists staged a hunger strike last year at UN headquarters, but called it off when they were promised action by the United States representative to the United Nations.

In a letter this year, dated 22 July, to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Han Lin and his fellow activists explained what happened during the hunger strike of September-October last year. “We were prepared to continue the strike until we were carried away unconscious — or dead,” they wrote. “But after we had been striking for nine days, US deputy ambassador to the United Nations Stuart Holliday met with us and asked us to call it off. Mr Holliday assured us that the United States would work together with the United Nations to place Burma — and the horrific human rights situation there — on the table as a priority. The United States would, he promised, do ‘everything possible’ to pressure the regime to release Aung San Suu Kyi and enable her to take her rightful place as the leader of our people. We considered Mr. Holliday’s words carefully and called off our hunger strike after twelve days, with hope that the United Nations and the United States would take effective action to end the regime of terror in our country.”

But Han Lin and the others were sorely disappointed over the course of the next nine months to discover that things were no better — in fact, they were worse. Their beautiful, brave leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, remained under house arrest, without any outside contacts.

She turned 60 on 19 June 2005, cut off from the world, and the occasion was marked by communities from Oslo to London to Kuala Lumpur to Tokyo to Pretoria to Sydney to San Francisco to Ithaca, New York. Calls for her release came from world leaders everywhere, including Kofi Annan. Her fellow Nobel Peace Prize Laureates wrote an impassioned letter decrying the inhumanity of the regime and demanding her freedom. Twenty-seven famous rock musicians, including U2, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Ani DiFranco, and Mun Awng, released an album, For the Lady, in her honour.

Han Lin and his friends were briefly heartened again, only to be crushed once more. Because despite the promises of last October and the unaccustomed international attention on Burma, nothing had changed. In the years since 1990 the United Nations has passed countless resolutions censoring the regime or demanding a stop to its human rights violations, but the regime just laughs in the face of the world and keeps on with its brutal ways. The respected nongovernmental agency Human Rights Watch and others have documented systematic incarceration of political dissidents, torture, rape, slave trafficking, child conscription, inhumane killing of animals, forced relocation, and the burning of entire villages.

Han Lin, Nyunt Nyunt, Maung Maung Tate, Saw Ngo, Phone Kyaw, Nu Nu Aye, and their scores of family members and supporters both Burmese and non-Burmese cannot tolerate the inaction of the world community any longer.

So this year they are once again literally putting their lives on the line for freedom. There are a half-dozen full-time Burmese activists, and many more join them for a day, a weekend, a week, or longer.

They started on 19 July in Washington, DC, with three weeks of peaceful demonstrations at the White House, the Capitol, and the embassies of Great Britain, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, France, Russia, China, India, and Japan. The notable exceptions to cordial receptions promissory of support were the embassies of Laos, where the Burmese were treated incredibly rudely, and China. The Chinese would not even converse with them or accept the letter they’d so carefully crafted to the ambassador and president (which had earlier been faxed anyway). China and Russia, which hold seats and veto power on the UN Security Council, were the reasons Burma was not even put on the UN agenda for discussion last year. This year, despite personal appeals and a modicum of international pressure, China still shies away from discussing any other country’s human rights record. One must assume China doesn’t want anyone pointing fingers back at China. Yet Russia, quite surprisingly, greeted the Burmese exiles cordially, and the embassy officer promised to deliver their demands to his government. They took this as a sign of hope.

After the peaceful demonstrations, the Burmese group left Washington on 8 August (the seventeenth anniversary of 8-8-88) to walk 485 kilometres to UN Headquarters in New York, arriving on 7 September. A dedicated group of International Peace Walkers from other countries accompanied them for the long march. Since arriving in New York they have been once again demonstrating peacefully at embassies, in public spaces, and at media offices (“Where’s the coverage of Burma?”).

On 18 September they will begin a seventeen-day hunger strike (one day for each year since 1988) in front of the United Nations.

Han Lin and Maung Maung Tate (in Burma every person is addressed by full name) are in their 50s; Saw Ngo and Phone Kyaw in their 30s; and the two women along with them for the long march and hunger strike, Nu Nu Aye and Nyunt Nyunt, are in their 60s. They all escaped Burma under dangerous circumstances. As they travel, they show photos of the horror that life is for the Burmese people. One of them, showing mutilated bodies and children in labour camps, is captioned, “Life is not a struggle but a hell.”

Their own stories are testament. Nyunt Nyunt, a 60-year old woman, survived the Depayin massacre of 30 May, 2003. She was traveling on a bus as a member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party when soldiers opened fire and began beating people – Nyunt Nyunt included – with bamboo sticks. She had to go into hiding, despite being severely injured, and later escaped to Thailand. She was granted refugee status in the United States, where she relocated last year.

All of the long march and hunger strike group were refugees somewhere before making their way to their current homes in the United States. They all have families and enough money to survive relatively comfortably in their new home, at least by Burmese standards. They could all be taking it easy in the States and put behind them all the horrors they endured; they could forget about those left behind.

But instead they have spent the long, hot summer walking from one huge US city to another along overtrafficked highways through heavily populated suburban sprawl. They marched with blistered feet, carrying banners and wearing “Free Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma” T-shirts and headbands, eating what meals kind strangers provide, sleeping in churches and community meeting spaces, showering in health clubs and strangers’ homes, giving up months of income (in some cases, their jobs) and time with their loved ones, talking to passersby about their country, sharing their spirit and hope with people who take for granted all the things that motivate them to such courageous action.

And they are optimistic and strong and cheerful and eager to talk with those who stop for information, who wave and flash the peace sign, who call out “Aung San Suu Kyi” from their cars as they whizz by. They believe that this is the year that change will begin.

For the past decade, the United Nations has consecutively passed resolutions calling on the military regime to hold a dialogue with the 1990 election-winning party to begin to resolve Burma’s problems. But the military continues to ignore all such calls for reason; instead it is planning to draft a new national constitution that would legitimise military rule in Burma.

The international community – the United States, Canada, the European Union, Scandinavian countries, and several other nations – have imposed economic sanctions against the Burmese military, which goes under the misleading name of “State Peace and Development Council.”

But that is not enough. Han Lin and his group — who call themselves the International Campaign for Freedom of Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma — are carrying five demands to the United Nations. They are:

1. The Burmese (Myanmar) regime must unconditionally release Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners, or face serious, tangible consequences as determined by the UN General Assembly

2. The Burmese regime must recognize and accept the results of the 1990 May elections and begin implementing political reform, supervised carefully by an international group of UN overseers

3. The regime must begin meaningful political dialogue for national reconciliation, overseen by an international body approved by the United Nations

4. The UN must appoint a commission to swiftly investigate the incidents known as the Depayin massacre of 30 May 2003 and take appropriate action when the results are made known (preliminary reports were already published, on 25 June 2003, by the Ad Hoc Commission on the Depayin Massacre, which consists of members of several of the largest Burmese democracy groups)

5. The regime must immediately terminate all crimes being perpetrated against the Burmese people: ethnic genocide; rape; torture; forced displacement; robbing; torching, and devastating villages; slave labor, and inhumane act of all forms

My Burmese friends will have a lot of work to do, along with their multiethnic Burmese brothers and sisters, once Aung San Suu Kyi is free and the regime toppled. But for now, as the activists begin their 2005 hunger strike, I long for their success. They truly believe — and live — the dictum of Mahatma Gandhi:

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” And their passion embodies what Margaret Mead so famously said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

I believe it. As they do. And they go on. They need help, though. They need a chorus of outrage against the regime, a chorus of support from everyone around the world who believes in freedom and democracy. We need to hear more about Burma, and we need to pressure the United Nations to do something to help. There are times and places when it is perfectly appropriate for other countries to become involved in the internal workings of a rogue nation, and Burma in 2005 is a prime example of such a time and place.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu said at the time of her 60th birthday in June,

“Ultimately it is in the interests of the world [to have a free and democratic Burma]. We are being told there is a war against terror. I believe fervently that the war against terror will never be won as long as there are conditions such as in Burma of injustice and oppression, of poverty and ignorance – which will drive people to become desperate.”

And then Father Tutu drew a parallel with his own country that cannot be ignored:

“I remember people saying about South Africa and apartheid that it is an internal affair how they deal with their own citizens,” he said. “There are certain internal policies about which, yes, that is true, but there are other internal policies which are an affront to the world. They are a very serious threat to peace and stability in the world. It is quite clear that what is happening in the beautiful land of Burma and to its wonderful people [is a violation of human rights]. There are no frontiers in human rights. If a government treats its people as if they were rubbish, this cannot any longer be an internal affair.”

Burma is not an internal affair; it is an international affair. And the international community must stand up and do what is right. As Aung San Suu Kyi said and the banners of the Burmese activists plead: “Please use your freedom to help promote ours.”

Burma Facts: Human Rights / Democracy / Freedom

  • The U.S. State Department and two credible NGOs found in 2002 that Burma’s military regime is using rape as a weapon of war
  • There are about 1,600 political prisoners in Burma, including 38 elected members of Parliament
  • Millions of Burmese have been pressed into what the International Labor Organisation, a United Nations agency, calls “a modern form of slavery
  • In 2002, more persons died from landmines in Burma than in any other country
  • Burma was ranked the world’s fifth most repressive government by Parade magazine
  • The Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003, which passed the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly, declared that Burma’s regime is using ethnic cleansing against Burma’s ethnic peoples


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