The second in a four-part series on refugee and immigrant communities in the Ithaca area.
By Meagan Murray
“Human beings the world over need freedom and security that they may be able to realize their full potential.”
-Daw Aung San Suu Kyi
“I want people to see this,” he says confidently. The banner is one of several that Lin and his fellow Burmese activists carry with them during their freedom marches and peace protests. Tonight, he is bringing his national efforts to the local community on Ithaca College’s campus, as an effort to spread knowledge about the political strife in his home country.
Lin is a refugee from Burma, now commonly known as Myanmar, since being renamed by the military government in 1989. He came to the United States in 1997 with his wife and six children after spending more than six years in the jungle waiting to cross the border into Thailand to gain refugee status. Today he lives in Ithaca with his family and works with the local refugee community as both a political and human rights activist for Burma. Ithaca is home to around 50 Burmese refugees; this number is continuing to grow with at least 30 more Burmese families joining the local community by the end of this year.
Refusing to recognize themselves as Myanmarian, Lin and the local population call themselves soldiers for Burma. For the past three years, these local leaders of the International Campaign for Freedom of Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma (USA) have gathered fellow Burmese refugees from all over the country to conduct a Long Freedom March to New York City and Washington, D.C.
The marches last anywhere from 30 days to several months. Since the first march in September 2004, where they began their journey at the Grafton Peace Pagoda in Albany and ended at the United Nations in New York City, these activists have staged peaceful demonstrations outside various embassies and government sites. The most recent Long March brought the activists to Washington, D.C. in September of this year, where they staged an 18-day hunger strike in front of the Capitol building to demand international attention for their country.
Located in Southeast Asia, Myanmar has a population of over 50 million. It is here where a military junta desperate to remain in power commits catastrophic crimes daily against its people. In order to keep civilians in the country, the government uses over 2,000 landmines along its borders. The military uses rape as a weapon to suppress women and children, while drafting as many as 70,000 child soldiers into the army.
According to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants there are 540,000 internally displaced persons throughout Myanmar. Another 727,100 refugees and asylum seekers are dispersed throughout the world. The International Campaign for Freedom of Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma (USA) estimates about 1.5 million people have been forced to flee the country. According to the 2000 Census Report, there are 32,590 people from Myanmar in the United States. Roughly 40 percent of the Burmese population came to the United States from 1990 to 2000.
After establishing independence from British rule in the 1948, the country faced ongoing warfare between communist and socialist governments. The young nation endured years of military coups and shifting between governments. In 1990, to curb growing resistance from civilians, multiparty elections were held between the ruling military government and the opposing populist party, the National League for Democracy. The NLD and their leader Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory – over 80 percent of the national vote. Unwilling to relinquish control, the government refused to recognize the results of the election and placed Aung San Suu Kyi under harsh military surveillance, predominately in the form of house arrest, where she still remains today.
For 16 years, the movement to overthrow the regime and establish elected democracy has continued. Because of this, the government has targeted multiple citizen and student groups, democratic supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi and various ethnic groups within its borders. With brutal tactics employed by the government such as detainment, forced labor, imprisonment, torture and rape, the U.S. State Department has recognized this government as one of the worst violators of human rights. But while the U.N. Security Council recognizes the human rights violations of leader Than Shwe’s government, the regime’s allegiance with China, India and Russia lead to a split decision on the imposition of economic sanctions.
Despite much larger refugee populations in Rochester and Utica, Ithaca is gaining worldwide recognition as an epicenter for political activism among the Burmese people. Maura Stephens, the spokesperson for the International Campaign for Freedom of Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma (USA) in Ithaca, coordinates activist events on campus with Lin, along with writing for the organization’s website during the Long Freedom marches.
The local Burmese have also worked alongside student representatives from IC Tzedek: Social Justice at Hillel on campus. Together, they held a weeklong campaign of public awareness, “What about Burma?” The first event, on Nov. 29, featured a U.S. Campaign for Burma documentary screening of “Our Cause.” The film focuses on the imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi, her campaign for freedom and on the growing awareness of the international community to the frightening reality of the situation.
Visually, the film captured the essence of a beautiful, serene woman of 60 years old; her face appears frail and tired, lined with years of exhaustive commitment to her country. However, to hear her speak is a testament to the endurance and strength of her country. She has been compared to the likes of Nelson Mandela and Mohandas Gandhi with her use of nonviolent activism. In 1991, she received the Nobel Peace Prize, but was unable to be honored in person, as she was confined to her home in Myanmar.
As part of the events held on Nov. 29, an eight-person panel, made up of local Burmese refugees and activists in the community, spoke about their experiences and commitment to the fight for democracy in Burma. Lin spoke about the imperative for immediate action from the United Nations and the local community.
Phyllis de Fano, a language coordinator for the ESL program at Tompkins County Learning Partners, volunteers with the Burmese community. At the panel discussion, she attested to their perseverance.
“Their weapons are their facts; they have lived the battle,” she said. “What they are asking for is compassion and unity in their country through nonviolence.
“They have taught me about the effect of democracy. Democracy takes total long-term personal commitment. It’s not something you can do one year when you go to vote.”
Another event held on Nov. 30 in the Ithaca College campus center featured a luncheon roundtable discussion, where students and members of the community spoke to local Burmese about their fight for the liberation of their country. Minn Htwe, came to the United States eight years ago on a visa with no contacts. He started his own business, as the local sushi supplier for Ithaca College and Wegmans.
When asked what changes he hopes to see toward the liberation of his country, he stated that strong international pressure and the presence of U.N. peacekeeping troops were necessary for global allegiances to the regime to be cut off. As for progression stemming from inside his country, he believes Aung San Suu Kyi and the student leaders working from her message are the best hope. “The public pays attention to them,” he said, “And the military is scared of them.”
On Dec. 3, to conclude the week’s events, a candlelight vigil held in the Ithaca Commons allowed local members of the community to pray for Aung San Suu Kyi and sign letters to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, pleading for a more prominent presence from the UN sanction committee to bring about global pressure for change.
We’ve heard the same story faintly played out to an unreceptive audience numerous times. A foreign land, some thousands of miles beyond the realm of our peripheral vision, is facing horrific injustice at the hands of their government. It is time to wake up to the reality facing the people of Myanmar and use our own activism to advocate international change.
“The United Nations Security Council does not pressure the government yet,” said Lin. “We need your support to write letters, and pray for us. Please, use your liberty to promote ours.”
Meagan Murray is junior journalism major who now has a taste for Burmese cuisine. Email her at mmurray1[at]ithaca.edu.
To learn more about how to obtain a copy of the letter to the U.N. Secretary-General to sign yourself, or to start a local student chapter for the U.S. Campaign for Burma, visit www.uscampaignforburma.org.