Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Burmese Crisis – First Impressions, First Friends

After last week's nine-hour overnight bus ride from the Bangkok to the north-west of Thailand, I'm now into the second week of my two month stay in the border town of Mae Sot.

This is like no other town that I have stayed in – That is saying the very least!

Just walking the streets one can encounter many ethnic groups – Burmese, Thai, Muslim, etc. There is a vast array of mosques and temples. On the outskirts of town one can visit nature and wildlife reserves, scenic caves and refreshing waterfalls.

I can't wait to visit the waterfalls, because it is unbearably hot here. I spend the hours between ten and five drenched in sweat. One of my classes requires me to ride my bicycle about six km, so along with the heat, I get to battle crazy traffic on the wrong side of the road.

Mae Sot abounds in markets – a daily central market, a night market, and a huge weekly farmer's market which boasts fresh produce from the surrounding area.

Restaurants with exotic fare and food stalls abound, where one can enjoy Thai, Burmese and Indian cuisine.

There are not many hotels or guest houses in Mae Sot, as it is not designated a tourist town, but I have found a lovely guest house where I can relax amongst lush trees and tropical flowers. The 'Green Guest House' is my little paradise. My bamboo-walled room has TV, fan, private bathroom with hot water, and my own private balcony. All this for under $200 a month.

Prices are very cheap in this part of Thailand, about a third of the cost compared to other areas which tourists frequent.

My balcony is a perfect place to reflect on my thoughts and experiences. Every evening there are many things for me to reflect upon.

Presently I am teaching three two-hour English classes every weekday. I am teaching recently arrived adult Burmese refugees. Many of them have spent years in prison for incomprehensible reasons. Taking part in a peaceful protest or voicing your opinion can land one in jail for many years. In 1988 and in 1997, students and civilians who took part in demonstrations against the military were arrested, jailed, and kept in 8' x 12' jail cells, with nothing to do day and night. They were only let out five minutes per day. One of the first friends I met was just released from prison on December 28, 2007. He had spent 17 years in jail, and is now in his forties. I asked him if he was tortured in prison. His response, in exact words: 'I was tortured in every way you can imagine'. His brother, who just arrived a few days ago, has permanent brain damage as a result of his imprisonment. One of my students is a former Rangoon University professor; another is a former Baptist Pastor who was arrested for supplying food to protest students. Many of my young adult Burmese students have high school degrees and yearn for college or university but do not have the money to enroll.

The never-ending stories of injustices to humanity that these people have experienced, and still are, have left a profound effect on me. Many of my students are adults who have lost their highly educated positions, and have been separated from their immediate families for years.

Briefly summarized, in 1988 when long-time leader of the socialist ruling party, General Ne Win, stepped down, mass demonstrations for democratization took place, which were violently suppressed. A new military junta took power. Aung San Suu Kyi entered into politics to work for democratization, and helped found the National League for Democracy, and was put under house arrest in 1989. In 1990, the military junta called an election which the NLD won decisively.

Being the NLD’s candidate, Aung San Suu Kyi under normal circumstances would have assumed the office of Prime Minister. Instead, election results were nullified, and the military refused to hand over power. This resulted in an international outcry. Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest at her home in Rangoon, Burma. During her arrest she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. In December 2007, the US House of Representatives voted unanimously 400-0 to award Aung San Suu Kyi the Congressional Gold Medal. The Parliament of Canada has unanimously passed a proposal to make Aung San Suu Kyi an honorary Canadian citizen. Canada has, in the past, only bestowed this honour to Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, Nelson Mandela, and the 14th Dalai Lama. She is the only Nobel Peace Laureate in detention in the world today.

During this military regime the people of Burma are experiencing atrocities to man not experienced in this part of the world since the Khmer Rouge era in Cambodia. The similarities frighten me.

Boys are taken from their families and forced to work for the military in the labor force. The military uses people as human mine-sweepers. Children are taken from families and used as soldiers. Once you are in the military, you can forget about ever getting out. Many of the military are victims. It goes on. Civilians and monks have been brutally beaten and killed. I have seen photos which were taken in Burma of the massacred dead, and the horrendously beaten.

The country has tried to shut down communication. There is no freedom of speech. Recent reports in the Bangkok Post state that the Burmese military Junta has stepped up arrests of dissenters since the September 2007 crisis, breaking a promise to the UN, as stated by rights group Amnesty International. The government acknowledges the deaths of thirteen people, but the UN says at least 31 are dead, and 74 missing. The junta has tightened its grip on its citizens as the world's attention has turned elsewhere. Amnesty International reports that 1,850 political prisoners are being held and 700 were arrested during and after the protests. The military enforces over 400,000 soldiers, the second largest in SE Asia. Half of the government budget is spent on the military.

Behind my guest house is a Burmese prison where numerous times throughout the day, Burmese arrive in a paddy wagon, and are put in a large one room prison, which is open on the street side for all to view. Eventually they are taken back to Burma, which is only 8 kilometers from Mae Sot. These Burmese (Karen tribe mostly), repeatedly try to flee the country, traversing though miles of mine-riddled jungle, before crossing the river into Thailand.

One of the human rights groups I am volunteering through, ABITSU, is giving many accepted Burmese immigrants a chance at a better life by giving them a place to live and by giving them extensive computer training. I am their first English tutor. Many of them had learned English to some degree at one point in their life. They revere their English lessons. They know that English is imperative for their future. Many of them hope to go back to Burma once the regime is not in power and democracy returns. My morning class is to a lovely group of Burmese ladies living in a safe house just outside of town. My afternoon class is to members of the NLD-LA, (National League for Democracy-Liberated Areas), which operates in the Thai-Burma border areas and abroad.

The situation in Burma is becoming worse as the world turns it attention to Iraq, Afghanistan and other larger countries experiencing the turmoil of war. Reuters has reported Sylvester Stallone's recent stand against Burma's military regime. Stallone has confronted them through the press . The situation merits world attention. In the words of NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, “Please use your Liberty to Promote Ours”.

Within a couple of days, I'll be posting pictures of my classes.


Project Enlighten said...

thank you for the wonderful post Lisa. We are so lucky to know a wonderful soul like yourself. We make the world a brighter place Lisa!
Love ya

A Burmese by any name said...

Hi Lisa

Keep up your great work. You are making a difference to the lives of people who need it most.

I am heading to Mae Sot in two weeks time as well and it will be my first time there (although I have been to Burma many times). I am looking for accomodation options. Would you reccomend the rooms at Green GUest house (any ones in particular)? Thanks