Burma: Through the Eyes of Foreign Volunteers

 |  April 1, 2009

September 27, 2007

“They started to move out in small groups and over the days the movement grew and soon there were tens of thousands of people marching in the streets in many locations around the country. They had a short list of demands. Talk to us, reduce prices, free political prisoners, apologise to the monks that had already been beaten and hold fair elections. It seemed fair to me but not to the Generals.

The Generals have ordered the start of a brutal crackdown on these kind and noble people. Gunshots and baton charges have left many dead and injured. In the middle of the night they raided monasteries and arrested, disrobed and carted away peaceful Monks. The question now is what will happen tomorrow?”
Journal snuck out by foreigner living in Myanmar during the protests.

I remember the day I arrived in Yangon; I was only 16 at the time and recall looking out of the car window as we were leaving the airport. I saw soldiers posted at the end of streets and immediately noticed the obvious poverty. “What have my parent’s done to me?” I thought. Within a few months, my views had dramatically changed. Burma had become my home and I didn’t want to leave.

Every day I was amazed and awed by the people. Burma is a land of prisoners, yet there is a dignity which transcends shackles, be they literal or metaphorical. “Their ability to look for the best and be thankful for what they have is inspiring,” a long term volunteer with Free Burma Rangers – an organisation that train relief teams and document human rights abuses – once told me. Although I was not involved in the politics at that time, I was not ignorant of it, seeing military intelligence taking photographs from across the street while I had coffee with friends, and other similar incidents. The older I got, the more interested I became in the works of various activists. I became very passionate about my new home. I yearned to learn more and sought out other activists. I saw their bravery and heard of their sacrifices. Every volunteer and activist had a different view on how they could help but all agreed that “every way of helping was just as important as the next.”

Living in Chiang Mai, close to our suffering neighbours, we get to meet numerous Burmese people, talk to them, hear their stories, and therefore relate more to their hardship. Antonio Graceffo, trained to be a medic to help the Shan army, explains “When you are living in Thailand, working on the border, doing aid work and journalism, it is hard not to fall over the edge and go completely ‘Kurtz’. You hear horror story after horror story from the kind, gentle ethnic people who were raped, mutilated, and driven from their homes. The lucky ones live in refugee camps in Thailand. Many didn’t make it that far. Their bodies litter the mine fields where they were forced by the Burmese soldiers.” Many people from around the world find it hard to turn a blind eye to this massive injustice and more and more volunteers, activists and aid workers are in full force shining the spotlight on Burma’s plight. Repeatedly I hear volunteers explaining why they have made Burma their lives’ work – “I needed to know more about the situation, then I volunteered, and before long it had become my life,” is a standard reply when asked why they left their home country and dedicated themselves to this foreign cause.

With so many different groups and individuals working in all fields of activism and aid, many choose the clandestine path in order to protect themselves, and more importantly, the Burmese people who they work with or help. They do not want to draw attention to themselves, just the injustice. Like the people of Burma, these volunteers will continue to fight for human rights and freedom for the Burmese, saying that their work is “instantly rewarding” and “the risks are worth it”, acknowledging that Burmese people risk so much more on a daily basis.

In 1990, Alan Clements was the first foreign eye-witness to document the mass murdering of the ethnic minorities by the military dictatorship, documented in ‘Burma: The Next Killing Fields’. He calls himself an accidental activist explaining “when you see death up close you can’t turn your back.” Over a period of six months in 1995, Clements interviewed Aung San Suu Kyi, the results of which culminated in his book ‘Aung San Suu Kyi: The Voice of Hope’. The transcripts of the conversations had to be smuggled out of the country. Because of Clements’ activism, in 1997 the dictatorship “permanently blacklisted” him from re-entering the country, branding him a “public enemy”. He continues his efforts today from outside the country.

During my phone interview with Clements he advocated the need for human rights to be seen as a global issue. “When we begin to see the global nature of human rights as we do the global climate change it is possible governments and people world wide will treat the Burma cause as we would global climate issues.” The importance of ‘oxygen’ and freedom need to be recognised by the world as just as essential.

Many volunteers conveyed the need to bring attention to this conflict; as they need to show the Burmese that the world hasn’t forgotten them. A staff member of Burma Volunteer Project told me “Getting the word out is validating as it draws awareness.” Footage and commentary from organisations and people like Free Burma Rangers and Antonio Graceffo, graphically show the world what is happening on the front lines. Getting this footage out of the country is risky. Clements shared that he was never worried about his safety but the safety of his material. Many foreigners in Burma sneak out footage and pictures of protests or the devastation of Nargis. They are putting themselves at risk but know the material needs to be seen and such issues kept in the forefront of world press.

Just one example of the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who are doing their bit to help Burma, is a foreign couple living in Yangon who have started a project to sponsor children’s education. With donations from around the world the project paid for 449 children’s tuition and necessities last year. Even though their project is non-political, they must stay under the radar and limit the scope of their aid for fear of drawing attention from the junta. The couple told me, “You have to be smart, have a back up plan, and always be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice. We have been lucky that it has never come to that.” So many more such projects are bravely being set up and run by individuals who risk their personal safety.

The couple explained that it is worth all the risks “It gets the kids off the streets today. In ten years these kids will be in their twenties. They could be the educated force in the country that makes a stance.” A member of the National League of Democracy for Burma lives in Thailand and has founded a school and training project, he believes that “education is the best way to change the country.” No matter how many times he is shut down, raided or arrested, he will continue to express his view “education creates active citizens, then they can create change through peaceful means.”

Before Tin Oo became the Chairman of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party he told Alan Clements, “I want to see the people of Burma live in a society built on the highest spiritual values, with human dignity and fairness for all. My belief is that love and compassion must be the guiding principles of our political system. I cherish the dream that, before I die, I’ll see this vision come true.” I yearn for this dream and admire all volunteers that have dedicated themselves to fight for this vision.