Letter from Burma #1

Aung San Suu Kyi

Today, on December 10th, International Human Rights Day in Burma, I met Aung San Suu Kyi.  The tingling I felt wasn’t just from the experience of meeting this extraordinary woman of courage, grace, determination and resilience, it was also from the convergence of meeting her in Burma, itself at a tipping point, and meeting her on the first International Human Rights Day to be commemorated in this country since 1988.

Years ago I’d torn out of magazines the romantic images of Aung San Suu Kyi with her husband, Michael Aris, soon after their marriage, entranced by the image of them both, and so conscious in looking at these pictures, of their lives, their destiny, since that time.

I was sitting next to Kirsty Sword Gusmao, a member of the delegation of Australian women leaders whom I’d joined for our time in Burma. Kirsty, as wife of the Prime Minister of Timor Leste, shared with her husband a story equally romantic and dramatic in the realization of a free and independent Timor Leste – with the poet revolutionary becoming the new nation’s first President and his beautiful wife and soul mate beside him for the journey.

And now, just after we’d each met her, here was Aung San Suu Kyi stepping up on to the stage to speak to a packed room of diplomats, delegates, journalists and representatives from civil society.

 If my voice counts then so does yours. 

 Human rights must be based not just on your own opinions but on those of others.

 Unless we can learn from others and respect others’ opinions then how will we be able to respect human rights for all?  We need to respect those whose opinions are different from ours and those whose opinions are opposed to ours as part of our commitment to honoring human rights for all.

 We must promote freedom of speech and create greater understanding among all of us.  We must listen to the voices of others and go beyond just listening to seek understanding so that we can broaden our horizons and make our world one based on greater understanding…

 If we want to build real respect for human rights then we must learn to truly communicate. Only then will we build genuine respect for human dignity…It is the birthright of every human being.

 The voices of all people must be heard in this world.  People must make their voices count and make their voices strong. And we must build not from above but from below in order to create a strong foundation.  The voices of the people must count. 

Her speech was followed by an abundance of others and it was preceded by an important speech from H.E. Aung Min, trusted advisor of the President of Burma. His opening sentences were:

 It is an honor for me to speak to you on this important day to celebrate human dignity. It is a day to rejoin in a universal idea – an idea that binds people regardless of where they are from, the color of their skin, their gender or what their faith is.  It is a day to celebrate an idea that requires governments to be better – an idea that requires all of us to be better.  Today, as I stand before you and reflect on the past year, I am proud of the reforms President U Thiein Sein’s Government has carried out to improve human dignity in Myanmar, but at the same time mindful that the kind of society the people of Myanmar envision requires all of us to strive harder.

What a time to be here, I thought, and to hear a speech like this, that would have seemed unimaginable only a couple of years ago. Among the others who spoke was U Ko Ko, Vice President of the Myanmar Journalists Association who said

“It’s been a remarkable year for us.  Media here is now in transition, reporting the voices of our citizens.  We are all entitled to our human rights, they are indivisible. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said ‘press freedom is the cornerstone of human rights. In our country, we have struggled for independent media and for media pluralism.  Even now there is a need for community radio and for public service media in order to lift up the right of expression by the people.

 Larry Jagan, freelance journalist, ex BBC, responded to the speeches by reminding everyone present that there were still political prisoners in jail.  “Until they’re released we’re not going to be able to respect human rights here in the way that we should.”

It felt great being in Burma as a group of a dozen Australian-born women leaders. We heard some challenging facts and stories in our first two days of briefings. From the Free Trade Union Movement, 90% of the extractive industries and energy industry are outside of trade union framework and the age group of the members is predominantly under 25 years.  At the United Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry in Myanmar (UMFCCI) we were told “we don’t have stigma for women’s human rights. There is no discrimination.”

When I asked about the research to support the speaker’s claims the speaker confessed there was none.  I looked at the back photo of the UNFCCI brochure we’d been provided – a pic of the Vice Presidents and Senior Officials of UNFCCI.  I counted 71 men and 2 women all staring resolutely at the camera.  A minute later we heard from another speaker. “We have to have affirmative action for men! They are not as involved as women!” one of the young male researchers at our meeting proclaimed.  “Perhaps they should work harder,” Hon Janelle Saffin responded drily.

“Talk comes from the gun, not the mouth,” said one human rights defender speaking at a briefing by human rights defenders at the Action Aid office.In Kachin State we heard that “at the local level, whichever armed group comes, it is us who have to pay, the only difference being that the groups use different levels of brutality depending on if the population is of the same ethnic group as themselves or not.”  This included rape, and loss of livelihoods and land.

In Kayah State, “drugs are a real problem – Burma is the second largest producer of heroin after Afghanistan.”  In other areas of the country we hear about land confiscation by corporations — “The companies and the land records department are linked and the companies are more powerful… so if they want to grab the land for rubber or other purposes, then they can,” said one human rights defender.

At Marie Stopes International we heard that 80% plus of health care cost comes out of the pockets of patients – which means that, as the Country Director described it, “people are often at a tipping point into a chasm of poverty. This has resulted in thousands of girls and young women being trafficked each year together with increased prostitution.”

In terms of education we learnt from another agency that half the under-five population is not able to read or write, thus posing a massive development challenge. Pathways to secondary and tertiary education are broken.  The fact that there’s a massive gender imbalance is veneered by enrolment rates – many, many more girls are dropping out even if enrolment rates are more on par.

At a Peace Center we heard that all Program Directors at the Center bar one were male and the message was effectively that women stay at home to take care of their families and households while men are at the front lines of the negotiating table. We learnt that male politicians and business men expect to negotiate with, and deal with, men and you can’t change that culture overnight. Men have to be responsive to that dynamic.  Clearly UN Resolution 1325 (women’s active involvement in peace-keeping, peace-making and peace-building) was not something that had been embraced by the management of this center.

Later we visited a kindergarten where moon faced children looked up in wonder at the Amazonian women before them.  There was something infectious about watching these children play and soon we were dodging the dodgems, with kids in plastic cars hurtling at us, joining a dance with bears, playing chasey and hide and seek.

One little girl, Cheri, came up and patted my face then pulled me into the library and ran to the bookshelf.  I looked at some of the titles Kindness is RewardedMa Pu Kywe and the SnailMaster Po and The TigerMs. Little Frog and Ms. Big FrogThe Foolish Boy and The TroubleThe Old Lady and The Magical LakePrincess with the Long Nose.

Inya Lake -BurmaThere was for me a sense of the mythic all around, not just in the titles of these books.  We looked out onto Inya lake after hearing Aung San Suu Kyi speak, the same lake that had been a kind of watery fortress for the many years she was under house arrest.

The great golden Shwedagon Pagoda was visible to us as we traveled each day, where the holy hair relics of the Buddha were enshrined more than 2,500 years ago.  This was the icon to which the eyes of our Burmese guides turned each day and where the Buddhist rituals of water offerings, candles, incense sticks and flowers to the Buddha formed a continual prayer in motion.

Shwedagon Pagoda. (CC) Jean-Marie Hullot

Back at the kindergarten, Cheri pulled out one of my favorite books from childhood – Pippi Longstocking – too old for her but I guess something drew her to Pippi the way it drew me. Truly, there is more that unites us than divides us, I thought as she ran up with another book, Daisy Dawson is On Her Way.  And so Cheri settled into my lap and I began to read to her until she fell asleep.  Daisy realized that she could understand exactly what the blackbird was singing about.  The notes spin softly around her like strands of silk weaving a song about clouds and apples and sunshine and stars…

Jane Sloane – Burma


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