Friday, May 15, 2009

Back on a Burma Binge

Today about half of the ISDSI students took advantage of an opportunity to spend the day with some Burmese youth activists. We spent the morning sharing information about our studies and travels, and then in the afternoon each of the farang was assigned to two or three Burmese students to discuss issues in their country and learn about their lives. The students ranged in age from 15 to 25. They are in Thailand without papers, living for one year in a compound that they can leave just once a month on a scheduled group outing... all this to be trained as activists and sent back across the border.

It was strange to meet with people my own age who are learning many of the same things I am learning (they just finished a section on dams and river ecology) and have the same dreams of changing the world, but as Pi Carrie said, where "we have a window, they have a wall." These students are going back to a country where protests, petitions, and other forms of political engagement do not work because they live in a military dictatorship, not a democracy. This sad truth became clear as soon as we began talking about the political struggle of the Karen and the tactics they have used to protect their way of life... it was apparent that everything we said was irrelevant to them. I tried to explain the concept of a petition to a couple of students and they seemed incredulous that such a thing as a list of signatures could bring about change.

Our trip to visit with these students was well-timed as we were able to ask them about the recent situation with Aung San Suu Kyi. The students think that the situation is awfully strange and probably a conspiracy to keep her out of power by locking her away in time for the upcoming "elections." A demoralizing blow for these pro-democracy youth, for sure.

Here are a few of the things the students described as problems in Burma, or issues they have faced directly in their lives:
  • Two of the students I talked with spent large chunks of their childhood living with grandparents because their parents were forced into slave labor on railroads and other construction projects. Forced labor is apparently a common practice by the military in Burma.
  • There are military checkpoints between nearly every village in the Shan state where soldiers demand money in order to pass through, so traveling is difficult for those without money.
  • One girl described how she left public health work in Burma because she was required to give AIDS patients lethal injections if they came into the clinic.
  • As i described in another post, the Burma Army routinely burns down villages in the mountains of Shan state in order to cripple the armed insurgency there. Farmers in the mountains are known for harboring and supporting the rebels. Often, bombs are planted in upland rice fields so villagers cannot harvest their crops. Many villagers become internally displaced people, or cross into Thailand to populate the UN-run refugee camps or work illegally.
  • When students leave Burma for their year in Thailand, they often must sever communication with their families completely for that time. Their families do not have internet or phones, and mail is not a possibility.
How are these students still so seemingly happy and well-adjusted? They are full of life and warmth... it is so inspiring.

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