The Daily Need

Exiled: Burma’s Defenders

Burmese Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi waves to a crowd of supporters outside her house in Rangoon on Sunday November 26, 1995. Photo: AP/Richard Vogel

Updated Nov. 13, 2010 | Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. Watch BBC video of her release here.

Burma is preparing for the possible release of its revered democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, this Saturday. The Thailand-based exile magazine The Irawaddy reported that 1,000 supporters convened at the Yangon headquarters of Suu Kyi’s now disbanded party, the National League for Democracy, to await the end of her sentence this Saturday at 7 p.m. Suu Kyi has been confined for a total of 15 years since 1989.

For Burma, a pariah state that has just come out of parliamentary elections fraught with fraud allegations and has grappled with decades of ethnic conflict, sex and drug trafficking along the border, two devastating cyclones, and a brutal governmental crackdown on the 2007 monk-led “Saffron Revolution,” Suu Kyi’s release is welcome news. The democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient is a highly respected symbolic leader of a democracy movement that, despite winning more than 80% of parliamentary seats in 1990 general elections, has continually been quashed by the country’s repressive military junta. There is no doubt that the military regime will continue to keep a close eye on her activities, and more cynical observers are simply waiting for the authorities to find a new charge to place her back under arrest. Nevertheless, last week’s elections, which President Obama condemned as “neither free nor fair,” are the latest development in decades of repressive rule that demonstrates a desperate need for the kind of public inspiration that Suu Kyi can offer.

Nobody is entirely sure what the direct of impact of her release will bring, or if she will even be able to exercise her influence outside of tight restrictions – Burma’s government is, after all, notorious for its secretiveness and wild unpredictability. But Suu Kyi’s power lies primarily in her symbolism and the mythology that surrounds both her and her father, the assassinated Burmese independence leader Aung San. And while she may serve as a beacon of hope for the country’s disaffected masses, it is the stories of Burma’s citizens themselves that best demonstrate the country’s tarnished history and the complicated challenges ahead.

Such stories are beautifully and succinctly showcased in “Exiled: Burma’s Defenders,” a multimedia project featuring photographs shot by Platon for Human Rights Watch and video produced by The New Yorker. The project profiles fifteen different subsets of Burma’s refugee community living across the border in Thailand, including sex workers, children suffering from HIV/AIDS, a former student union leader and political prisoner, members of the news agency Democratic Voice of Burma (the subject of the fantastic Oscar-nominated documentary “Burma VJ”), a political cartoonist and a former child soldier. Video commentary by David Mathieson of Human Rights Watch provides the background of many of the ongoing conflicts faced by Burmese citizens and their efforts to resist the junta.

“People think of Burma and they think of the horrors and they think of people as victims, and it’s not the full story,” Mathieson says in one of the features. “People resist and they’re opposed to military rule in so many different ways.”

A series of video interviews with some of the people profiled features personal accounts of what they have faced what they hope for the future of Burma.

“Sometimes prison life is really like a hell,” says former student union leader and political prisoner Aung Myo Thein. “I felt we were forgotten by the outside world.”

“I’ve been in forced labor since I was 10,” says one migrant worker who spent years in forced labor in Burma. “It’s very tiring because I am getting old.”

“The people have become very poor,” says Shirley Seng, speaking about the difficulties faced by women in the Kachin minority group. “We don’t get the freedom to do our own business in our own area. What I hope for the future is the rights of women … We want to live peacefully together with other ethnic groups.”

Together, these portraits form a captivating and deeply heartbreaking mosaic of life in Burma and resistance in exile, with a glimpse of what the country’s unsteady future may hold. The last line of the project’s introduction resonates clearly: “Although forced into exile, they have not been silenced.”

See “Exiled: Burma’s Defenders.” Video interviews by Human Rights Watch. Videos produced by The New Yorker.

 
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