by Doim Bang Joo, KSCF
I started my internship with the Burma Issues in Bangkok on 16 May 2003. At first, I was very nervous because I knew little about the Burma. I just knew that there were rampant and serious human rights violations in that country. And of course my English was not so good, moreover, it was my first trip to Thailand. However, the staff of the Burma Issues welcomed me in very friendly ways and gave me a very detailed introduction on their work as well as my job. Particularly, I was introduced to the Documentation Center of Burma Issues which updates and keeps records of the situation of Burma. I feel that the data-base for the Internally Displaced People in Burma was very valuable and impressive.
After I had adjusted to the working environment of Burma Issues, I started to meet several ethnic groups from Burma who are staying in Thailand. I had very valuable discussions with them which I will never forget. Before I came to Burma Issues, I thought that democracy was the only issue for the country. However, after I met some ethnic peoples of Burma, I realised that the ethnic issue was as important as the issue of democracy in understanding the country. In other words, the people in Burma want to achieve self-determination for the ethnic groups as much as they want to achieve democracy.
Burma consists of many ethnicities. It does not mean that Burmans is the majority and other ethnics are minorities. On the contrary it means that Burmans is one of the ethnic groups in Burma. Some people say it is a real democracy to treat all ethnics equally. The different ethnic people who are working for the human rights of their own people are against the military government’s relocation policy and its human rights abuses, said that they do not hate Burmans but they just want to live together with each other in peace.
When I met with the youth from several ethnic groups, some of them told me that the best way to achieve democracy in Burma was to recognise the self-determination of each and every ethnic groups in Burma. But some people argue that federalism is the best way to the betterment of all ethnic groups in Burma—just like after World War II, Burma achieved federalism according to the ‘Panglong Agreement’.
However, it is clear that both opinions agree that the main problem at this moment is the military regime that does not want democracy in Burma. They also agree that most of the sufferings have been caused by the military government’s discrimination policy.
Through several encounters I reaffirmed my conviction that human rights movements from the grassroots is important because the quality of life of the grassroots is the measuring standard of human rights and democracy.
The purpose of this Myanmar trip was to experience the life of the ethnic people especially the minorities. While I had indirect information about Burma in the office of Burma Issues, I also had more concrete understanding of the human rights and social situation in Myanmar in my trip to Myanmar. Fortunately I had many opportunities to talk with the ethnic minorities especially with the youth. So, I would like to introduce some dialogues, as follows:
“If USA or any other countries attack Myanmar I will fight against the invader” said one of youth from Chin. She said she does not like the military government but she loves the people who live in Myanmar. That is why she is willing to fight against any invaders. When I was talking with her, she was angry that US attacked Iraq and that it has imposed economic sanctions in Myanmar. She did not believe what the US said about economic sanctions will help improve democracy in Myanmar and by doing so is actually supporting democracy. According to her, the US is still reaping benefits indirectly through Japan or other Asian countries that are dominating the Myanmar market. She emphasised that she does not like the Burmanese government and but love those who live together with her.
I met one person who had attended a gathering in Monywa to support Aung San Suu Kyi’s campaign. He told me what had happened:
“I think the accident was planned by SPDC, I am sure! Prior to the gathering, a helicopter landed at the place where Aung San Suu Kyi stayed and soldiers forcefully divided the youth group and Aung San Suu Kyi, then they attacked and killed the youth. Maybe more than 50 people were killed by the soldiers and those who are supported by the SPDC” According to him, the SPDC is very cunning and clever because they use the tactic, divide and rule, between people and pro-democratic group. The SPDC likes to propagate that Aung San Suu Kyi is supported by UK who has once colonised Myanmar, but nobody believes this propaganda. He added that those people who support Aung San Suu Kyi do not support the National League for Democracy (NLD) because they do not believe the NLD members except Aung San Suu Kyi. He also said he likes and is willing to support Aung San Suu Kyi but he does not follow the policy of NLD because they do not have any policy on ethnic conflict transformation in Myanmar. In his opinion if the NLD wants to be a party which enjoys the support of the people, they should be concerned on the ethnic conflicts between Burman and the others, and be against SPDC’s policy of ethnic discrimination.
Whenever I was asked, “Where are you from?” I will feel guilty because my country Korea is one of the supporting countries to SPDC. I saw many Korean business people there at the Yangon airport and they were talking about businesses and where are the best places to build factories and how much money they could make in Myanmar etc. Nobody talked about the human rights abuses and economy crisis in Myanmar. And the worst was that some of them were giving money to the SPDC in order to receive business benefits from the military government. It was sad to me because most of the Korean business people are supporting the military government through this way. It was not so hard to see many Korean companies advertisements such as ‘Samsung’, or ‘LG’ on the streets, but it is difficult to meet Korean people who are concerned on human rights abuses in Myanmar. Yes! I know they are business people and not human rights advocates, but they are Korean and I am also Korean, that is why I feel guilty every time when I was asked “where are you from?”. This question always reminds me of a challenge that I should work both in Myanmar and Korea.
The whole challenge of my internship was how to relate Minjung (grassroots in Korean) in the movement. I believe Minjung is God, that is why I have dedicated my life to work with the Minjung. When I meet and talk with the Minjung, I convince myself again why we have to work together in and with Minjung. The Minjung realise their situation and accept struggles of human rights abuses from the bottom of their heart. It is important that we should listen to the Minjung’s voice and respond to their needs, otherwise all our movements will lose the vision.
Before I started the internship, I was worried about my English ability and that I will not be able to contribute to Burma Issues as an intern. But soon after I found this was not an obstacle for learning and sharing with the ethnic people in Myanmar and staff in Burma Issues. They kindly took care of me from the beginning to the end. “Nobody is perfect! Don’t worry!” the coordinator said to me. Now I think I was lucky because I met so kind staff in Burma Issues and I had the chance to meet ethnic youths and grassroots people in Thailand and Myanmar.
Through this internship programme, I became aware of two things. First, Minjung’s (or grassroots) perspective is very important in human rights advocacy work, and secondly the ecumenical movement should be based on the perspective of Minjung. We have a tendency to mouth that ‘Minjung is the fundamental foundation for our movements and churches but many times we forget this truth.
In this internship programme, I acknowledged that ethnic conflict is the most critical problem in Myanmar. Burmanese soldiers are constantly attacking and killing ethnic minorities from the jungles to the villages. Although democratising the political system in Myanmar is very important, I question “for whom is this system working”? For me, the answer is clear—the system should work for the Minjung.
The encounters with the ethnic youths in Myanmar inspired me that youth and students should actively involve in the struggle for human rights, peace and justice, not only for themselves but also for the future generations. After the internship, I keep the slogan of Burma Issues in my heart: