Letter from Burma #2

“In this moment when we face horizons and conflicts wider than ever before, we want our resources, the ways of strength. We look again to the human wish, its faiths, the means by which the imagination leads us to surpass ourselves.” said the poet and activist, Muriel Rukeyser.

I thought of these poetic lines when our delegation of women leaders in Burma sat listening to the stories told to us by Burmese women who were essentially revolutionary leaders, placing themselves at the front line for their beliefs.

One story we heard was from Aye Thi Khaing, a woman from the Agriculture and Farmers Federation of Myanmar. She shared with us how she agitated for worker rights and went to the International Labor Organization with her protest and was subsequently jailed for six years and two months for associating with an international organization.

By the time she left jail she”d lost her job and Cyclone Nargis had destroyed her home and her husband had died. She felt she had nothing to lose and so said “I will commit myself to work for workers” rights. She subsequently set up more than 70 farmers unions and trained women to become trainers in terms of farmers knowing their rights as food suppliers and women gaining confidence to speak up and not be absorbed by a patriarchal culture. “Farmers will be the majority of the population and are crucial for Burma”s future” she said.

Another woman was a political prisoner in jail for 17 years as a result of agitating for women workers” rights. She said, “I believe that without changes in the people, there will be no changes in Burma.”

“We need to build the confidence of women” said another female activist. “Women have been on the margins for so long that we need to teach each other how to speak out and claim our power our voice and our movement for change.”

In a very different environment to this grass roots organizing, the Commissioners of the newly formed Myanmar National Human Rights Commission are busy building an effective secretariat and carrying out their work. Established on September 5th 2011, the Commission is responsible for promoting and safeguarding the fundamental rights of citizens enshrined in the Constitution. The 15 Commissioners, of which three are women, were appointed by, and report to, the President. As Presidential appointees they will thus need to earn the trust of the people, who have for so long been assaulted by a repressive military regime and who understandably remain wary of those closely associated with the leadership. The Commissioners acknowledged this, and also the navigation and negotiation skills required in such a sensitive role.

We heard of the challenging time the Commissioners had when they felt compelled to raise the issue of political prisoners with the government in a way that wasn”t too confrontational. They wrote an open letter to the President that both acknowledged his concerns about the prisoners and changed the language about the prisoners to be less inflammatory to reflect “prisoners of conscience.” It obviously worked because the President finally released 29,000 prisoners in batches, including those whose release had been advocated by the UN Secretary General and some western countries.

From September 2011 to September 2012, the Commission received 1,035 submissions and from September 2012 the Commission has received 3,772 submissions. Most submissions have been for land grabbing, forced recruitment and 15 rape cases. Some of those accused of rape have already been sent to jail and a couple of the Commissioners paid an impromptu visit to the jail to see that justice had indeed been realized here. The biggest issue for the Commission at present is that they only have a seconded staff of 22 people although recruitment of their own team is underway.

“We have a big head but a small body,” smiled one Commissioner.

I asked about the Commission”s contact with the Human Rights Defenders – “we are human rights defenders!” one of the Commissioners countered, and some of the others nodded. The Chairman said it was hard to separate out the idea of human rights activists and human rights defenders in terms of what these people were doing. He did say they needed to have a closer working relationship with them in the time ahead and would welcome their sharing their own reporting and findings with the Commission. Meanwhile, the Commission is operating in a country where there are no laws to give women protection from domestic violence or from other forms of violence.

On the positive side, organizations like the Women”s Organizations Network, representing 30 women”s organizations in Burma, are advancing the cause of women”s rights through their own fierce and focused advocacy. This includes pursuing a dream to establish a Women”s Leadership Academy to train women, including those from ethnic minorities, to be leaders.

“We want women to not only participate but to be leaders. Without women, there is no genuine peace,” says Shwe Shwe Sein Latt, Advisory Council Member. This progressive women”s organization also has plans for informal and formal education including a mobile network to lift the literacy rate amongst women and girls. And ethnic language classes in order to preserve ethnic languages since only Burmese and English are taught in schools – and often at home too. Many can speak their ethnic language but can”t write it. “We have to empower women to know their rights.and to respect their ethnicity and identity,” Shwe Shwe Sein Latt says.

Ten minutes from the Women”s Organizations Network is the Colorful Girls, a leadership project designed to assist girls ages 13-18 to avoid trafficking, dangerous labor and other forms of violence, by facilitating girls recognition of their potential. The organization works to
promote girls rights in all forums by organizing Colorful Girls Circles, training facilitators, creating curriculum and infusing in girls a belief in their ability to be change-agents and to individually and collectively come up with potential solutions to issues they”re facing.

I walked into the offices of Colorful Girls and into a circle of gorgeous girls aged between 12-17, diverse in identity and circumstance and united in an infectious energy and animated conversation. While I met with the founder, Nant Thazin Min, laughter from the girls floated up to the office where we were talking. The images of those girls and young women gathering took me back to my years of being a member of the YWCA and the sense of belonging those years instilled in me. To date almost 1,000 girls have done the training with plans to extend the training to two more states next year and nationwide in next five years. This is important given growing ethnic tensions and the increase in trafficking and prostitution – all impacting on and involving girls and young women. Like other forms of violence there are no laws in place to protect girls and young women from being trafficked while, according to Nant Thazin Min, there are an increased number of girls being sold into prostitution by their parents due to grinding poverty.

I carry these stories of the brave, courageous women of Burma with me, and with a pledge from myself and others to do all that we can to support them and to secure funding to assist their work in the time ahead. As one Burmese rights organizer, who declined to be named, pointed out, “we don”t have a road map for the time ahead. Our compass is our ethics, and our commitment to women being a part of the peace process and the realization of democracy in this country.”

The rules break like a thermometer,
quicksilver spills across the charted systems,
we”re in a country that has no language
no laws, we”re chasing the raven and the wren
through gorges unexplored since dawn
whatever we do together is pure invention
the maps they gave us were out of date
by years.

Adrienne Rich

Jane Sloane – Burma