BY ANITA LUMBUS
Earlier this year, before Washington's invasion of Iraq began, US President George Bush addressed US troops in Florida. "We seek more than the defeat of terror", he said. "We seek an advance of freedom and a world at peace. That is the charge that history has given us — and that is a charge we will keep." If he were speaking truthfully, Bush's list of terror states would be long and in South East Asia, Burma would be at the top of it.
The people of Burma have lived under a military dictatorship since 1962. South African anti-apartheid activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu has described the regime as "one of the world's cruellest". The ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) terrorises its citizens and has virtually quashed above ground opposition to its rule. According to Amnesty International, torture is an institution in Burma and there are 1200-1300 political prisoners in its jails. The regime has been condemned by the International Labour Organisation and human rights groups for its widespread use of forced labour.
Last year, a report was released by a Burmese women's group documenting the use of rape as a weapon against women and girls as young as five in Burma's Shan state. There is no freedom of expression or assembly; universities remain closed throughout most of the year.
The government's most infamous act of suppression against its people occurred in August 1988, when it crushed a non-violent, pro-democracy movement, shooting and imprisoning thousands of activists. Although, due to international pressure, elections were held in 1990 and the National League for Democracy party (NLD) won the majority of votes, the SPDC has yet to recognise the NLD as victors and has twice placed its leader, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest.
Many Burmese have been forced to flee to neighbouring India, Bangladesh and Thailand. Two to three thousand Burmese cross the border into Thailand every month, many from oppressed ethnic minority groups such as the Karen or Shan. During a recent visit to Thailand, I spoke to several Burmese refugees about the situation in Burma today.
Bo Kyi now lives in Mae Sot, a trading town along the Thai-Burma border with a large population of Burmese migrant workers and dissidents. Bo Kyi has experienced the cruelty of the Burmese regime. In March 1990, he was arrested for his involvement in a demonstration demanding the release of all student prisoners and was sentenced to three years' imprisonment with hard labour. Bo Kyi was released after completing his sentence but was imprisoned again in July 1994 for five years.
"I was locked in a tiny cell. I had nothing to do", said Bo Kyi. "They didn't allow me to read or write, to do anything. That was a way of killing my brain. I had no hope, but I tried my best. I always tried to do something. I made up my mind to study English without anything. I had no teacher, I had no books and I was alone. Next to me was a professor. He could speak English, Japanese and Chinese. When the prison guard was away he would speak one sentence, two sentences. I noted them on the concrete and then I recited them all day."
Bo Kyi fled to Thailand in 1999 and helped establish the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, based in Mae Sot, which provides support to political prisoners and their families. The AAPP is also campaigning for the release of all political prisoners inside Burma. The organisation has received much recognition internationally and in 2001 Bo Kyi received an award from Amnesty International for his work. He believes one way foreigners can help support the pro-democracy movement is by boycotting visits to his country.
"When you visit Burma, you will see that Burma is very beautiful. Burmese people are very hospitable", Bo Kyi explained. "But behind the scenes, Burmese people are suffering a lot. There is forced labour in Burma. All the buildings, the roads underneath your feet, are made at the expense of the lives of Burmese people — prisoners, women. So we request that everyone not visit at this time."
The AAPP has offered support to Ko Myo, a kind-hearted, politically passionate person whose subversive activities in Burma included running a library for fellow students and distributing pro-democracy literature. He was arrested in 1994 and sentenced to five years in prison. He was only 18 years old.
"When I was in prison I met a lot of prominent student leaders and student activists", said Ko Myo. "All of them were arrested because of student activities. They asked for educational reform, economic reform and political reform. They only used non-violent methods but they were put in prison and tortured seriously. Not only physical but also mental torture."
"We were almost in solitary confinement when we were in our cells. For example, one of my friends was beside me in his cell but I could not talk to him. If I did talk, I would be seriously tortured, beaten at least 200 times with a special stick, and we would be banned from showering or [have access to] a clean toilet. I [told] a prison officer that we would like to shower, eat enough food and that we didn't want to be beaten and tortured. So I was punished: for one month I could not take a shower and I could not have a clean toilet."
"From September 1995 to April 1996, I was always starving", Ko Myo added. It was winter, and it was very dangerous for me as I had to sleep on the concrete without a mat. I ate rice and bean curry but it was mostly water. It was not very good for our health and some political prisoners died because of poor nutrition."
Ko Myo arrived in Mae Sot in 2000 and now lives in Chiang Mai, where he is studying English and hopes to receive a scholarship to study overseas. He lives there illegally, as do most of the approximately 2 million Burmese refugees and migrant workers in the country. The lack of a legitimate process for determining refugee status in Thailand means that most Burmese activists are unable to seek political asylum, and are therefore in constant danger of being arrested and forced to return to Burma.
In the past, the Thai government allowed Burmese opposition groups to exist "unofficially" on its territory, at the discretion of Thai intelligence. Since mid-2002, however, the government has taken a much tougher stance and activist groups in smaller towns along the Thai-Burma border have had to scale down their activities and virtually go into hiding.
Bo Kyi feels the situation is bleak. "For the time being, the main problem is security. We could be arrested anytime and transferred to Burma. If we were sent back, our lives would be at risk or we could be put into prison for many years. I don't want to blame the Thai government because it is their law. But they should consider what they are doing on humanitarian grounds", Bo Kyi said.
Aung San Suu Kyi and the SPDC have continued to engage in dialogue since her release from house arrest last year. Her release has sparked renewed hope among millions of Burmese people around the world that the military dictatorship is near its end and a democratic government could soon take its place.
However, at a time when the rhetoric of the world's political leaders is dominated by talk of "liberation" and an end to terror, their plight is ignored. The success of the struggle of the Burmese people does not suit the agenda of the world's most powerful governments. Instead, the people of Burma must continue to live under one of the world's most repressive regimes, while those who have escaped fight an uphill battle, in the hope that they may one day return to a free Burma.
[Anita Lumbus is a solidarity activist from Perth.]
From Green Left Weekly, May 14, 2003.
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