BY AISLING DILLON AND PAUL BRADY
What is the appropriate response to events such as those reported from Burma over the last number of weeks? That was the question in the air for the crowd that gathered last Tuesday night for the first event of the newly-formed HLS Burma Campaign.
Captivated by the troubling images that had flooded our airwaves – images of saffron-robed monks and unarmed civilians lining the streets, of peaceful protest met by a military response and of a dictatorship engaged in violently crushing efforts at democracy – students from a variety of disciplines at Harvard turned their minds to the question of response.
The teach-in, co-sponsored by several larger societies (HLS & HCS Advocates for Human Rights, and Harvard Asia Law Society) was attended by a capacity crowd of 80 students. They were addressed by a number of speakers who gave presentations based on personal experience and research on the country. The first speaker, Burmese woman Daw Aye Aye San, welcomed the event and was encouraged by the turn-out. A former political prisoner, Aye San fell foul of the authorities due to her participation in the famous student protests of 1988.
She recounted how she was arrested as a student in December 1990 for her involvement in the student branch of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and described her treatment at that time, when she endured beatings about the head and denials of sleep and food during a non-stop three-day interrogation. In a personalised account of her experience, Aye Aye San painted a picture of life in Burma under the regime as one of arbitrary denials of rights, physical deprivations, and denial of access to information and media. Life under the regime in Burma before her escape to the US, she recalled, was one of constant fear.
Also speaking at the teach-in was Tyler Giannini, Clinical Advocacy Fellow at the HLS Human Rights Program. Prior to coming to the Law School, Giannini was a founder and co-director of EarthRights International (ERI), an organization at the forefront of efforts to link human rights and environmental protection. He spent almost a decade in Thailand conducting investigative fact-finding efforts on human rights abuses in Burma and groundbreaking corporate accountability litigation. Giannini was co-counsel in the landmark Doe v. Unocal litigation; which sought to hold the corporation accountable for the abuses surrounding the Yadana gas pipeline project in Burma. He argued that foreign corporate investment is propping up the junta and funding the purchase of the arms and equipment which the junta relies on to brutalise the civilian population.
The HLS Burma Campaign aims to educate the Harvard community about the situation in Burma and to raise awareness of what American students can do to support the most recent pro-democracy demonstrations in the country led by thousands of Buddhist monks and students.
These protests have led to a brutal crack-down by the military dictatorship which included the fatal shooting of over 100 un-armed demonstrators, mass internments, raids on monasteries, extensive curfews and a complete shutdown of the country’s phone system and internet access.
The recent history of Burma can be easily summarised. Britain colonized Burma in 1886 and ruled the country as part of India until 1947. General Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi, exploited the Japanese occupation to gain Burma’s independence in 1948, but was assassinated just before the handover. The country functioned as a parliamentary democracy until 1962, when General Ne Win assumed power, ostensibly to prevent Burma’s ethnic groups from seeking autonomy or independence. Many attempts were made to overthrow Ne Win and reinstate democracy, but he held onto power until a nationwide uprising in 1988. A group of military leaders formed a military junta, now known as the State Peace and Development Council, which have led ever since. Burma was renamed “Myanmar” by the junta in 1989. However, the democracy movement inside the country, the EU, the US, and many major media outlets continue to use the term “Burma” as a symbolic protest against the military regime.
The junta held an election in 1990, presumably believing it would win, but lost in a landslide to the NLD, the largest opposition party which is led by Aung San Suu Kyi (recipient of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize). The junta has held Suu Kyi under house arrest on and off ever since, from 1989-1995, and again from September 2000-May 2002, and most recently since May 2003.
Although the NLD draws its inspiration from Gandhi and is committed to non-violent politics, party members suffer severe harassment from the authorities and many have been imprisoned or killed.
Burma is ranked “Not Free” by Freedom House’s international reports and was ranked as having the fifth most repressive government in the world by Parade Magazine. There are approximately 1,600 political prisoners in Burma, including 38 elected members of parliament. The US State Department and two major NGOs stated in 2002 that the military regime is using rape as a weapon of war. According to the International Labor Organisation millions of Burmese have been pressed into what it calls “a modern form of slavery.” Furthermore, The Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003, passed overwhelmingly by the US Congress, found the military regime is using ethnic cleansing against Burma’s ethnic peoples.
Students interested in learning more about Burma related activities on campus should visit the website of the Harvard Burma Action Movement (BAM) at www.harvardbam.blogspot.com