Even at nine in the morning on a Friday, when most of us would normally be counting down to the weekend, the energy in the Foundry in Washington, DC is phenomenal. In the sunshine outside, groups color flags in support of Filep Karma, while inside roses and key actions are passed around for signatures. Larry Cox hasn’t even arrived yet, and everyone is already buzzing with excitement.
By the time everyone has settled inside for the opening speeches, the count is well over one hundred Amnesty International activists. The various speakers infect the crowd with even more passion and anticipation, reaching a pinnacle when Larry announces that he has decided that joining us for Get on the Bus is more important than going home to meet with the IRS.
The group splits, half heading to demonstrate for the Women of Zimbabwe (WoZA) at the Zimbabwe Embassy and half for Walid Yunis Ahmad at the Iraqi Consulate. We march in long ovals, chanting and holding our signs, the very picture of peaceful protest. At the Iraqi Consulate, faces peer out from the windows and passers by stop to watch.
There is an antidote to the weariness, cynicism and paralysis perpetuated by the heartless churn of our 24-hour news cycle: Just listen to the voices of those who walk the razor’s edge each day as they fight to change the world. Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi addressed Amnesty activists by phone at the end of Day 2 of our 50th anniversary conference, graciously acknowledging the role of grassroots activism in her release after 15 years of detention by the military junta and encouraging us not to forget the 2,000-plus political prisoners who remain locked up in Burma.
Her brief address was followed by a riveting speech by Jenni Williams, co-founder of Women of Zimbabwe Arise, a group of women who have been jailed, tortured and persecuted for their non-violent demonstrations to demand social justice. Williams recalled one August night when police abducted seven WOZA members. “The phone calls started at 3 a.m. We heard our members had been arrested in suburbs, so we called Amnesty International. By 12 noon, all seven members were delivered back to their homes by the same police officers who had abducted them,” said Williams.
Earlier in the day, I spotted New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof listening to similarly harrowing tales at the well-attended panel discussion, “Muzzling the Watchdogs,” featuring Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho, Sri Lankan journalist J.S. Tissainayagam and Iranian American journalist Roxana Saberi. All three had been arrested, imprisoned and persecuted for their work to expose injustice, and each was the subject of Amnesty International urgent actions and/or international letter campaigns demanding their freedom.
Labor activist Su Su Nway was arrested for putting up an anti-government banner near the hotel in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, where the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar was staying. After a few previous close calls, Su Su Nway went in to hiding before the Special Rapporteur’s visit in order to avoid arrest by the oppressive dictatorship which presides over the small Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar (Burma). It is estimated that Su Su Nway is one of over 2,200 political prisoners currently being detained in Myanmar.
Prisoners in Myanmar are held in poor conditions and are at risk of torture and other ill-treatment. Su Su Nway suffers from a congenital heart condition, high blood pressure and, according to a July 21, 2010 “Radio Free Asia” report, malaria and gout, which are all made worse by conditions at the prison where she is held. The prison is 1,200 miles from her family’s home in Yangon, so it is very difficult for them to visit and bring her necessary food and medicine. Prisoners typically rely on their families to bring them medicine and food, as supplies in prison are completely inadequate.
Wonderful news has come out of Myanmar recently with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Laureate and symbol of hope for eventual Burmese democracy. However, thousands of others, including Su Su Nway, are still being punished for the peaceful expression of their views; the government continues to deny its citizens the freedoms of expression, association, and assembly. But you can make a difference. Write a letter on behalf of Su Su Nway and join with thousands of others in this year’s Global Write-a-thon who are writing to uphold human rights throughout the world.
Lisa Hart, Campaign for Individuals at Risk, contributed to this post.
By Jim Roberts, Myanmar Country Specialist for Amnesty International USA
In this season of giving thanks, we are thrilled and grateful for the release today of Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar (Burma)! The government released her after seven and a half years of house arrest.
Will she re-form the National League for Democracy? Will she continue to advocate for democracy? Will her release be for good this time, or will the government find another reason for imprisoning her yet again? Only time will tell.
While we couldn’t be happier about Suu Kyi’s release, time continues to run short for the over 2,200 other political prisoners who are still behind bars in some of the most notorious prisons in the world. They suffer from lack of medical care, proper nutrition, and lack of contact with their families. Many are imprisoned hundreds of miles from their homes, making travel for their families difficult if not impossible.
By Michael O’Reilly, Individuals at Risk Campaign Director
After being detained for 15 of the past 21 years, democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi could be free tomorrow… if Myanmar’s rulers don’t change the rules first.
We’ve been waiting for this day for so long – the release of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi could be set free tomorrow, November 13. Our anticipation is high, but we’ve also been here many times before.
In fact, Myanmar’s rulers could decide to tack arbitrary conditions on to Suu Kyi’s release that bar her from any and all future political activity. That is, if they decide to release her on this date at all – she could be held until February 2011, depending on when they actually dated the start of her 18-month term of house arrest. No one knows for sure.
Less than a week ago, Myanmar’s military party swept the country’s first elections in more than 20 years amid heavy criticism and allegations of widespread fraud. As a result, thousands are fleeing the region as violence erupts.
The growing tension puts Suu Kyi’s release date even more at risk of falling under the regime’s capricious judgments.
But releasing Aung San Suu Kyi, while still blocking her rights and freedoms, would be a flat-out violation of all laws, rules and basic respect for humanity.
This Sunday, Myanmar will hold its first national election in twenty years. Considering the authorities ongoing restrictions on the freedoms of expression, association and assembly, its outcome is expected to be deeply flawed. Many people, including political prisoners, have been banned from voting. The UN and international human rights groups have called on Myanmar to release over 2,100 political prisoners.
A student activist from the 1988 generation, leads a crowd of demonstrators in a chant of 'Free Burma'. Trafalgar Square, London 2007. (c) AI
Ethnic tensions have also risen. The junta has barred voting in about 3,400 villages and some ethnic candidates or parties have been barred from participation. Additionally, no foreign media will be allowed to cover the election. Only some diplomats and UN representatives based in Myanmar will be allowed to observe the vote.
The main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, announced last March that it would boycott the elections. The group, which won the 1990 elections but was denied power, is led by Aung San Suu Kyi. The junta has kept Suu Kyi under either house arrest or detention for over 14 of the past 20 years.
The people had clearly voiced their aspirations in the 1990 election, but the government has ignored the results. Now is the opportunity for the public to retaliate for what the government had done in 1990—Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as quoted through her lawyer Nyan Win
It is clear the process remains deeply flawed. The conditions do not show that these elections will be inclusive, free and fair. The potential for these elections to bring meaningful change and improvement to the human rights situation in Myanmar remains doubtful—UN human rights envoy for Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana
Many of Myanmar’s 50 million people live in poverty and suffer from ongoing human rights violations. Those who express dissenting views face harassment, arbitrary arrest, torture, imprisonment and sometimes even executions. And political prisoners now number over 2,200.
When elections were last held in 1990, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won a resounding victory, but the military government ignored the election results and arrested scores of opposition activists. This has haunted the government both domestically and internationally ever since.
With new elections, Myanmar had an opportunity to place the 1990 elections firmly behind them. However the new election has already been tainted as in June political parties were banned from undertaking campaigning activities that could “harm security, the rule of law and community peace”. This provision is so broad that it allows for the criminalization of peaceful political activity.
For decades, the government has used vaguely worded security laws to suppress peaceful political dissent and there is a real fear that activists, especially those from ethnic minorities and the NLD, which is boycotting the elections, will come under increased repression as the election approaches.
Myanmar’s government must halt its repression of activists. The people of Myanmar must be allowed to exercise their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association throughout the election period and beyond.
Gandhi once said, “An ounce of practice is worth more than a ton of preaching.” But in the decades since Gandhi and in an environment premised on India’s towering pursuits of economic development and regional security, I am beginning to wonder if India is doing more preaching than practice when it comes to promoting democracy and freedom – the very things that it fought so hard to win over from the British Raj.
Aung San Suu Kyi
India has traditionally been a key ally for Myanmar’s (Burma) democratic opposition, most prominent is sure to be none other than Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has remained under detention or house arrest for the last 15 of 21 years. India has long provided safe haven for fleeing pro-democracy Burmese activists and has bestowed Suu Kyi with India’s highest civilian honors.
However, in the last two decades Indian foreign policy vis-à-vis Myanmar has made an about-face from its former ‘principled’ approach, and reached an unprecedented threshold when Myanmar head of State, Senior General Than Shwe, visited India for five days in July. The visit ushered in a new strategic partnership between the two neighbors as part of India’s “Look East” policy aimed to enlarge India’s presence in the region and to keep China’s growing presence at bay.
But it wasn’t the panoply of high-level and expensive agreements that were reached, nor was it the fact that none of these agreements were contingent upon Myanmar’s willingness to release Aung San Suu Kyi or the 2,200 other political prisoners, or any push to ensure free and fair elections in Myanmar later this year – the first in 20 years. What was shocking to me was that India allowed Than Shwe to pay homage to the burial site of Gandhi.
It was entirely unpalatable to me that India could allow one of the world’s most flagrant violators of human rights to stain the legacy of a man who led masses to peacefully overthrow a repressive colonial overlord not entirely different from that of the present-day Myanmar, or to symbolically forsake its support for Aung San Suu Kyi, herself a sort of “Burmese version” of Gandhi in her own right.
This is not Myanmar junta leader General Than Shwe
The military junta leader of Myanmar (Burma), (senior) General Than Shwe, went on a multi-day visit to India. While there, Than Shwe (responsible for widespread human rights violations in Burma, including the detention of thousands of prisoners of conscience) received a most marvelous gift from the Government of India, a bust of Mahatma Gandhi, the “apostle of non-violence.” Surely the sense of irony is lost on the victims of human rights in Burma.
So, again a hearty congratulations to the leader of Myanmar junta Than Shwe for the successful trip to India and a special congratulations to the Government of India for undermining the shreds of hope for the people of Myanmar. It’s a job well done– I hope the Government of India enjoys the undeserved fruits of its cynical foreign policy until human rights comes to Myanmar. And then…?
UPDATE: Check out Amnesty’s brand new action page on Myanmar: Stand with the People of Myanmar. Demand they be given the three freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association. Also, show your support on twitter by start using #3freedoms
August 8, 2010, marks 22 years since Myanmar’s massive crackdown against student protesters, resulting in the deaths of 3,000 and the detention of countless opponents of the military junta. Although 8/8/88 remains a disheartening defeat, it also continues to symbolize the hope for change.
Similarly, in 2007, citizens took to the streets again to wage anti-government protests. However, this time, the demonstrations were led by thousands of monks, heralding the movement as the “Saffron Revolution” due to the color their robes. Within weeks, the military brutally squashed the peaceful protests, evoking international condemnation and outcry.
That outcry was only made possible by the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a non-profit media organization based in Norway, which filmed the events with hand cameras and smuggled the footage out of the country for international broadcasting. They communicated to the world the tense atmosphere, desire for basic human rights and desperate hope that Myanmar experienced in August and September 2007. The reporters of DVB took great personal risk to give the international community unprecedented access to the political and social atmosphere in Myanmar.
Cameras vs. Guns
Yesterday, I finally got a chance to watch Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country, an Academy Award nominated documentary created from the footage captured by the Democratic Voice of Burma during the “Saffron Revolution.” The documentary is incredibly powerful and inspiring; Burma VJ highlights more than the overwhelming human rights abuses present in Myanmar by emphasizing the everyday devotion to freedom as well as the great personal risks that ordinary citizens assume to record political events. While emotionally poignant and insightful, Burma VJ also chronicles the challenging footsteps of video journalists in Myanmar in their quest to capture the truth. The desperate expectation for change is evident in the documentary and reminiscent of the political and social environment of August 8, 1988.
To catch a glimpse of daily life in Myanmar and view human rights activism and advocacy at its finest, watch Burma VJ. The documentary, produced by Anders Østergaard, was just released on DVD in the United States, so update your Netflix queue, sit back and get ready for some serious human rights activism!