Is South-East Asia the globe's forgotten factor?
Economically, it is one of the fastest expanding regions of the
world. But in twenty years' time, will we regret that more was
not done there to bring about freedom, justice and peace?
When I was fifteen I made a list of all the
things I was unhappy about, ranging from having spots to not having
a boyfriend. It's a hard life, isn't it?
Now meet Lin Lin from Burma. When she was
thirteen her mother died. Shortly afterwards, her father took
her to a job-placement agency on the Thai-Burma border. The agent
gave him 1200 Baht (US$75) and the assurance of a job for Lin
Lin in Thailand. Once in Bangkok, the agent took her to a brothel.
She did not know what was going on until he started touching
her. He told her to take off her clothes and forced her to have
sex. From then on she was never allowed to refuse a client.
During the week she had six or seven clients a day but at the
weekend the number often rose to fifteen. She was warned, moreover,
that if she came out of the room before her client, she would
Such is the plight of many girls from Burma
and elsewhere. Unaware of how the racket operates, their parents
are innocently selling them into sex slavery. The extent of their
world is more often than not a small concrete cubicle. Inevitably,
the tragedy of their violation is their exposure to AIDS. Most
come to Thailand as virgins (yielding a higher payment); most
return HIV positive. Lin Lin said some of her clients refused
to use condoms and although she was tested several times for AIDS,
she was never told the results. The horror continues. Those
who do make it back across the border into Burma are liable to
be prosecuted as criminals for having illegally left the country
in the first place.
The trafficking of women and girls into Thai
brothels is just one of the many human rights abuses suffered
by the people of Burma. Since 1962, they have been dominated
by a military regime now known as the State Law and Order Restoration
Council (SLORC). In the student led, non-violent uprising of
1988, thousands of demonstrators were killed including monks,
women and children. Many students fled to the jungle region of
the Thai-Burma border and joined the ethnic groups in their armed
struggle against the military. From there some went to Bangkok
to further their fight for freedom as political refugees.
One such student is Ma Aye Pwint. She and
thirty-seven others were arrested by the Thai police and jailed
for nine months. Now studying on scholarship in Australia, she
says, "Even though we are in many different countries, we
are still against the military government." She continues,
"Some of our colleagues think the fall of the opposition
headquarters (Manerplaw) is the end of our revolution. That is
not true for me and for other democratic students. The centre
of revolution is in our heart, until we achieve our goal. I believe
the longer we stand up against militarism, the better the way
of life we can create for our people. That is my great expectation
for my country, Burma."
At the same time, Angelay, a student in Bangkok,
says "Burma's problems will not be solved just by removing
one government and installing another." He fled to the jungles
in 1988 and fought there for three years. However, he is not
convinced that this is the best way to bring about the changes
needed. "We Burmese are so quick to take to guns as a means
of solving the problems we face. We are not so ready to negotiate.
I have decided to change to a non-violent approach. That is
an even harder challenge than armed struggle but we need to take
"If we are to establish democracy, we
need to bring reconciliation between all the different groups
which make up Burma. We need to cure corruption, as the Taiwanese
are doing through their clean-election campaign. But first we
must see the dishonesties and hatreds inour own lives which cause
corruption and disunity. If we start to do these things ourselves,
we will learn to do them for our country. The non-violent way
challenges us to take responsibility and live a disciplined life.
That is the moral training we need to create a just and democratic
The courage displayed by these young activists
is admirable. Zaw Win, a friend of Angelay, recalls the motto
which kept their spirit alive whilst in Bangkok:
We came here not to surrender
Hope for the best
Prepare for the worst
Strength of resistance is an ability
If this is an inspiration to those still in
the detention centre, so too is the philosophy of their imprisoned
leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. She relates to their resilience, because
"even under the most crushing state machinery, courage rises
up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilised
In her essay, Freedom from Fear, not
only does she demonstrate an unfailing and compassionate love
for her people, she also gets to the very cause of the students'
revolt. "(They) were protesting not just against the death
of their comrades but against the denial of their right to life
by a totalitarian regime which deprived the present of meaningfulness
and held out no hope for the future."
And what of the future? The vision of Suu
Kyi, 1991's Nobel Peace Prize Winner, does not stop at the creation
of a new Burma. It extends to the whole of humanity. She sees
that, "as long as there are governments whose authority is
founded on coercion and interest groups which place short-term
profits above long-term peace and prosperity, (then) concerted
international action to protect human rights will remain at best
a partially realised struggle." Her belief therefore is
not only that "victims of oppression (will) have to draw
on their own inner resources", but that every individual
should undergo a "revolution of the spirit". Why? Because
"it is not enough merely to call for freedom, democracy and
human rights", one has to "make sacrifices (and) resist
the corrupting influences of desire, ill will, ignorance and fear".
Although she barely knew him, hers is the
living voice of a father who stood for the principles of freedom,
discipline and self-sacrifice. "Each and every one of you
must make sacrifices to become a hero possessed of courage and
intrepidity": so General Aung San inspired his people, leading
them in 1947 to independence from the British. The same year
saw his assassination. Nearly half a century later, his spirit
lives on in a daughter who urges us not to be dictated by fear
but to have the courage to carry the responsibilities needed to
create societies free from want.
Burma's people continue to work for the restoration
of human rights and democracy and call for international support
for their struggle. July 20th, 1995 marks the beginning of Suu
Kyi's seventh year of imprisonment in her own home. Under Burmese
law she is due for release on that day. Time will tell.
Meanwhile, if she can bear the pain of separation
from her husband and sons - and if a young Burmese man can lie
semi-conscious on a prison floor and say, "I will not complain.
In my heart I have the courage to continue", what small
sacrifice can we make, where we are, today and tomorrow and tomorrow?
Laura Trevelyan, UK
BURMA ON THE INTERNET
Much of the global mass media is profit-driven.
This inevitably distorts its news coverage and emphasis. If
an international TV network dwells on a country's dark side, then
that country's government may be reluctant to grant the network
rights to broadcast. The casualties of a drive to maximize profits
are often the victims of injustice in a country. Such is the
case in Burma.
Even the SLORC, however, can not control the
interactive grassroots communication made possible through the
Internet, as information is smuggled into the country on computer
disks. It is unfiltered and not bound by any regulations.
Social and political activists around the
world subscribe to electronic mailing lists such as BurmaNet,
to conduct wars of propaganda. The messages travel the globe
instantly and cost little. Academics involved in Burmese studies
and U.S. Government officials are among BurmaNet subscribers.
The Burmese Embassy in Washington reacted to BurmaNet by putting
SLORC-sanctioned news on the internet.
Much of the latest technology is not available
in Burma, as with most closed countries. So supporters and exiles
overseas make up the majority of BurmaNet's readers, who number
in the thousands. But increasingly, locals are receiving this
news. Some even give information to BurmaNet's facilitator, "Strider".
Institute for Global Communications (IGC)
resources are used by Strider to distribute news. The IGC is
a non-profit organisation that boasts "the most extensive
global communication network in the world dedicated specifically
to serving NGOs and citizen activists working for social change".
It also supports environmental groups and those working for non-violent
For more information send E-mail to BurmaNet
and messages to the Institute for Global Communications
Erik Parsons, Australia