Forging a Better Future for Burma


Forging a Better Future for Burma

October 25, 2007

Wedged between emerging superpowers India and China, Burma often goes ignored in the face of other more publicized human rights crises, despite nearly half a century of state violence and oppression.

Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948. An ethnically diverse nation, many of its minorities clamored for autonomy after independence, but nonetheless a representative government was able to function successfully until 1962. That year, a brutal military junta took power in Burma, crushing personal freedoms through torture, political imprisonment, and censorship. Protests in August 1988 demanding an elected government resulted in another, equally oppressive army regime - the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

The new government, which remains in power to this day, renamed the country “Myanmar,” after the majority ethnic group in the country. However, pro-democracy activists still use the old name to vocalize their objection to military rule. The SPDC wields absolute control over the Burmese people, particularly its ethnic minorities. Because the minorities often call for secession and autonomy, the military government has responded with rape, slaughter, summary executions and forcible displacement to keep them impoverished and powerless.

The SPDC government uses forced labor, mostly composed of minorities, to build large-scale development projects in ethnic areas, which are rich in natural resources. Free speech has been silenced: pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest since 1990. Children are used and sold as soldiers. A prolific drug trade that benefits the military has made Burma a global capital for the production of heroin, second only to Afghanistan.

Burma Issues, an AJWS partner since 2004, is working to secure the basic rights that Burmese citizens and especially marginalized communities are denied by their government. A non-partisan, non-governmental organization working in Bangkok and along the Thai-Burmese border, Burma Issues believes that education, humanitarian aid and grassroots engagement are the key to a just and non-violent future. Its mission is: “Let us work so that the next generation does not have to suffer.”

The ongoing suffering and oppression of minorities in Burma means that millions of people have been forced to flee their homes to escape from the violence of war. To date, over two million people have fled Burma for Thailand, China, India and Bangladesh; 150,000 people live as refugees in camps along the Thai-Burmese Border; and there are more than 500,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in eastern Burma alone. Many IDPs have seen their houses burned, livestock killed and crops destroyed. This is particularly true in Karen State in eastern Burma. The Karen are the second largest ethnic group in Burma, and their struggle for independence has resulted in SPDC persecution, including mass relocations. The Karen now make up 65% of Burma’s refugees.

To help the Karen people in their struggle, AJWS is supporting Burma Issues’ “Children’s Education Project.” The status of education, particularly in Karen State, is dire: the Burmese government spends less than 28 cents per ethnic child per year on public education in Karen State, and there is only one school for every 25 villages on the border area.

The “Children’s Education Project” is partnering with local leadership to run a village school, which is free for internally displaced children from ages five to 14. The school teaches students Burmese, English, mathematics, geography, hygiene, as well as their native language, Karen. It offers a teacher preparatory course, instructing teachers in how to avoid teaching military-mandated curricula and propaganda. Through this dedicated initiative, Burma Issues and the village school are creating critical thinkers who, according to teacher one local schoolteacher, “can stand on their feet and solve problems on their own.”

Education is just one of the myriad ways in which Burma Issues is strengthening civil society in this war-torn land. It will take grassroots organizing, coupled with international solidarity, to forge a more positive and peaceful future for the people of Burma.

Working with WITNESS, a Brooklyn-based organization which trains human rights defenders to document abuse through video, Burma Issues recently produced “Season of Fear,” a video highlighting the daily struggles of internally displaced persons. You can view an excerpt of this video here.