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October 19, 2009

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Shining light on a distant struggle

Burmese human rights activist visits Canada, thanks CUPE for its support

ON TOUR—At an October 13 presentation held at the Unitarian Church in Vancouver, Burma Issues/Peaceway Foundation’s Saw Kwehsay, centre, posed with CUSO-VSO’s Umeeda Switlo and members of the local Karen community—two of whom stayed at the same refugee camp as Kwehsay in the early1990s and had not seen him since then.ON TOUR—At an October 13 presentation held at the Unitarian Church in Vancouver, Burma Issues/Peaceway Foundation’s Saw Kwehsay, centre, posed with CUSO-VSO’s Umeeda Switlo and members of the local Karen community—two of whom stayed at the same refugee camp as Kwehsay in the early1990s and had not seen him since then.

BURNABY— As far as pariah states go, Burma is unlike any other place in the world—a place, as U2’s Bono once sang, “that has to be believed to be seen.” Ruled for the past 47 years by a brutal military dictatorship that tramples on human rights in every conceivable way, the country now known as Myanmar has gone from being the once-prosperous “rice bowl of Asia” to a place where 39 million of its people—most of the population—live below the poverty line.

Despite receiving billions in aid from China, India, and other Asian states in its sphere of influence, the Burmese junta spends less than one dollar per person on education and health services combined. In eastern Burma, one in five children will die before their fifth birthday. Amnesty International and the International Labour Organization have condemned the country’s use of child labour, and Burma has the world’s highest rate of child soldier recruitment.

Over the past two decades, more than a million Burmese have been classified as “internally displaced persons”—people who have been evicted from their homes or villages by Burmese army soldiers doing battle with ethnic rebels, and forced to live homeless in the surrounding jungle or countryside. Countless more have been run out of Burma altogether, filling refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border or trying their luck as exploited migrant workers in Thailand earning as little as two dollars a day.

Bringing home the reality

This month, CUPE members and staff caught a rare glimpse of life in Burma, thanks to a visit by a Karen Burmese human rights activist sponsored by CUPE in cooperation with CUSO-VSO, a non-profit, international development agency that works through volunteers. 

Saw Kwehsay is the planning committee and information and campaign coordinator for the Peaceway Foundation/Burma Issues, a Bangkok-based, non-governmental organization that does human rights training both for people who have fled Burma and those who are trying to help inside the country. CUPE’s Global Justice branch is funding one of Kwehsay’s projects near the Thai-Burma border.

Earlier this month, he arrived in Canada and attended CUPE National convention in Montreal, where he met with CUPE activists and staff and gave an update on the project. After moving on to Ottawa to meet with the local Burmese community there, he visited B.C. last week.

From “jungle man” to international activist

Everywhere he goes, Kwehsay retells the harrowing story of his own life in Burma. In 1976, his family was forced to flee their home as army soldiers literally wiped their village off the map. His father was killed by the army three months before his youngest sister was born. For the next eight years, the family was homeless with no access to education, health care services—and sometimes even food.

“I lived for years thinking there were no other people in the jungle besides us,” he recalls. “We had to eat from the jungle for our survival.”

Life grew so desperate that Kwehsay’s mother contemplated committing suicide with her children. After crossing the border into Thailand in 1984, Kwehsay spent ten years inside the Kway K’Lok refugee camp near Mae Sot. In 1994, he left the camp and began working with Burma Issues.

“I had gone back to my village area several times between 1990 and 1993 to visit my mother, and I saw that the situation had not improved,” he says, adding that decades of armed struggle by the Karen National Union and other rebel armies had changed nothing. “I came to believe that finding a solution to the conflict in Burma must happen in a peaceful and non-violent way.”

Kwehsay began working as a human rights information collector in his own village, taking photos of the area where his house had been and documenting the stories of people he met who had had some contact with soldiers of the Burmese army. When he returned to the refugee camp, he shared the photos with other refugees and sent them to friends who had resettled in the United States.

“For a ‘jungle man’ who did not see a school until I was eight years old, it was amazing to learn that I could use information to make international links,” says the soft-spoken activist, whose experience has aged him beyond his 36 years.

Local reporting trusted most

During his visits inside Burma, Kwehsay also provided basic human rights training to the villagers he met: “I helped them become familiar with human rights, about the UN charter, and how to document human rights abuses in their own areas. Things like recording the battalion number of the soldiers who came to the village.”

At first, Kwehsay found that villagers were distrustful of being interviewed.

“Over the years, many Western journalists had come to document what was going on, but they would leave and never come back, and people didn’t know what had become of that information,” he says. “So we tried to find people in the community who would trust us enough to tell their stories.”

The information from the interviews, shared with journalists and students interested in Burma, was used to provide fodder for analysis and education, but it also had a preventative aspect: “With the right information, you can inform the villagers in advance if there is some dam or bridge project going on in a certain area, where the army will have security forces in place.”

CUPE-sponsored video project empowers villagers

In 2003, a number of organizations doing similar human rights work along the border decided to pool their resources and form the Network for Human Rights Documentation for Burma. The purpose was to combine the complementary skills of each organization and share each other’s project results. Burma Issues (which by this time was registered in Thailand as the Peaceway Foundation—removing “Burma” from its name in order to avoid embarrassing the Thai government), decided to focus on video documentation. CUPE sponsored a volunteer to work on various human rights training videos for Burma Issues.

“If you’re a big decision-maker you may not have time to read a big report, but after a few minutes of watching the video, you see the people, you see their faces—that’s more helpful and interesting than a big report, because you can visualize the experience of people inside Burma, which is very hard to imagine,” says Kwehsay, describing the impact of the videos particularly on Western politicians who are lobbied to support the cause of democracy in Burma.

Kwehsay adds that the videos are also distributed inside Burma and are well received—especially by the villagers who showed great courage just by their willingness to be interviewed onscreen.

“It is very empowering for them to see what has been done with the information they provided,” he says. “They feel included, as do other witnesses or people who have been abused but whose stories would otherwise remain invisible.”

At the Global Justice forum at CUPE National convention, Kwehsay discussed the current state of Burma, and how Western journalists are unable to document the junta’s constant offensive against civilians.

“That’s why CUPE’s support is so important,” he says. “In Burma, you can’t work on human rights at all, or you will get arrested. Even for the average person, it is not easy to communicate by telephone or computer. It takes money. So it’s easier to train people on the border areas, and build connections and support with international networks.

More support needed

Although the political situation in Burma remains unchanged, Kwehsay stresses that doing nothing will only make things worse for the people still living there.

CUPE members can help by becoming more informed about the situation inside Burma, talking about it with friends and lobbying their MP to call on the Harper government to support continued humanitarian aid to Burma, and to support a binding resolution on Burma at the United Nations.

In recent weeks, the Canadian Friends of Burma (CFOB) have distributed post cards, directed at the prime minister, that address both these issues. A recent print run, sponsored by CUPE, was used by CFOB for distribution at the Toronto concerts of U2, which is well known for its support of the Burmese cause. The post cards, which will also be distributed at U2’s Vancouver concerts, are available at National office and by request at regional offices.

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