Re: Crimes committed against the people of Burma
To the Editor:
I recently attended a "Burmese information night" sponsored by the Cross Cultural Learner Centre in London. I listened while five refugees from Burma told their stories of oppression and resistance in their home country. One recounted his narrow escape from the massacre which followed a 1988 pro-democracy demonstration in Rangoon. Another spoke of a 20-year-old woman, shamed and pregnant by the rape of soldiers, who died during an attempted abortion. With tears in her eyes, she said "I always cry when I tell this story because she was my friend."
I learned about Burma's ruling military regime, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which governs with extreme brutality and intimidation. Those who oppose the regime, as well as many ethnic minorities, routinely face rape, torture and arbitrary execution. Thousands of villagers have been forced to resettle to make way for the tourist industry. The country's infrastructure has been constructed largely through forced labour. In 1990, the National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung Sun Suu Kyi, won 82 per cent of legislative seats in the national elections. SLORC refused to respect the will of the people and disregarded the outcome.
In spite of these atrocities, the Burmese people's resistance has been heroic, if not yet successful. I was intrigued to learn that students play a prominent role in the pro-democracy movement. Students, teachers, academics and professionals are all part of the ongoing struggle to lead their country into a time of peace, democracy and respect for human rights. Yet the cost of the struggle is high those who participate face the possibility of threats to their families, arrest, torture and execution.
These stories also call me to respond. In the Christian faith community to which I belong, we are called to be in solidarity with those who are suffering and oppressed. I wonder how best to live out that act of solidarity, of standing alongside persons in a struggle half a world away. I can refuse to purchase products from companies which still do business in Burma. (PepsiCo recently pulled out of Burma after it lost major beverage contracts at Harvard, Stanford and Colgate universities.) I can encourage the Canadian government to strengthen its economic sanctions against Burma. I can support human rights organization such as Amnesty International (one of the presenters thanked Amnesty International in his speech and attributed his release from prison to their efforts). I can seek opportunities to meet people from different parts of the world and learn from their life experiences.
These steps seem small in the face of the reality in Burma, but perhaps they are a starting place. I am grateful that I live in a country in which I need not fear reprisals for my actions. I am reminded of the words of the anthropologist Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has".