Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Land of Grieving Mothers

Nyunt Than holding a Burma Pro Democracy flag to be flown at the City of Berkeley's Annual Burma Day Flag raising Ceremony
Nyunt Than, the current head of the Burmese American Democratic Alliance (a non-profit organization in the Bay Area that works on democracy and human rights issues in Burma) is a Burmese leader whose activism going back to his days as a student during the 1988 pro-democracy uprisings. At the time, Nyunt Than* had just graduated from Rangoon Institute of Technology when the military regime shot and killed three student protestors from behind. “This act exposed the regime for what it was” he explained. “Now annually we commemorate that day, March 13, as Burma Human Rights day.” 

“The protests in 1988 were initially led by students, but soon spread across the country as civilians, from children to housewives and doctors, joined in to rise up against the military dictatorship that had been running the country into the ground since 1962”. Despite having a broken leg due to a recent car accident, Nyunt Than took to the streets in resistance.  The protests ended up leaving thousands dead as the regime brutally suppressed the movement. After the uprising ended, there were immediate crackdowns and arrests of students.  Many students escaped towards the Burmese border into countries like Thailand. Nyunt Than stayed behind, however, due to his disability and a desire to finish up his graduate degree.

commemorating the 1988 pro democracy uprisings in  Burma

During this uprising, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel laureate and the daughter of the founder of Burmese Independence, Aung San, became a prominent opposition leader for democracy, creating the National League for Democracy party. In 1990, the military-backed Burmese regime lost the national election to Aung San Suu Kyi (or ASSK for short) and her democratic party. “During that election, I went back to my village and that’s where I witnessed how much people were hoping for change.  Everybody came out and voted for her; they thought there was going to be real change. The next day, the radio announced the winners and I thought," Nyunt says with a sardonic laugh, “what can these people [the regime] do now? I thought that things were going to be different, but I was wrong. The next day they [the regime] outright denied Aung Saan Suu Kyi power, which eventually led to her arrest, and many student leaders got arrested again and again.” It was then that the Burmese regime overthrew the results of the general election and arrested ASSK, placing her under house arrest and jailing other democratic leaders who had won seats in the parliament. Some of whom would later died in prison.

Upon finishing his masters degree in 1991, Nyunt Than was quick to leave Burma.  “The regime lies, they kill and will do anything to keep themselves in power, I intensely disagreed about what is going on in Burma, that’s why I decide that I will never work for this regime, as soon as I finished my education I left towards Singapore and lived there for 4 years. Activism in Singapore was very difficult because they are close to the Burmese regime”.  After four years, Nyunt was able to migrate to the United States. Once in the US, Nyunt felt that he was could work to help his home country. He became involved in protest activities and soon helped found BADA and became the Secretary of the organization. 

The oppression increased after Nyunt Than left. “The world was on edge when the regime brutally cracked down on the 2007 peaceful protests by Buddhist monks. In May of 2008, a massive cyclone Nargis hit lower delta area of Burma and killed nearly 200,000. With bodies scattered all over the region and millions of survivors looking for land, food and water to survive, the regime, instead of helping the people,  moved forces within the country to come to the polls and approve a sham constitution."  

Holding up a 2001 photo of himself protesting in the book "Free Burma", the protest was against Unocal Corporation's partnership with the Burmese regime
When it comes to the protests that Nyunt Than works to organize, he has some strong points to address about economics and corporate interests in Burma. “If you look at why the dictatorship is still in power since it began rule in 1962, neighboring countries are very much responsible for this, especially China, India and ASEAN countries especially Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia. Though the US has sanctions and the UN is driving pressure, these countries still work with the regime to exploit our natural resources to cut prices. For China, Burma becomes a geographically strategic partner for them, because China sees Burma as their back door to the Indian Ocean. In times of war they want to make sure that all oil transport from the Indian Ocean can reach China; they want to use Burma as a back gate. Burma is also rich in natural resources and China is looking for resources throughout the world and Burma is right next door.”

Nyunt Than continues,“[In Burma, people struggle to live hand to month daily and have nothing much to eat due to the scarcity of food. They don’t even have enough electricity for their basic needs in the cities. Burma is exporting the largest amount of natural gas in the region to power factories in neighboring countries. The regime gets millions of dollars while the people struggle. There is gas pipeline to Thailand and one of its operators is California’s Chevron corporation. China is building a huge gas pipe line from Burma to China’s Yunnan Province.  We are currently in the mists of protests against the Chinese dam on our the vital Irrawaddy River* to produce electricity for China. Burma is about the size of Texas and half of it used to be covered by forests.  Now forests are no longer there and a few years back the country faced the severest drought seen in Burma's history due to the lack of trees."

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Teacher from Thailand

Pam posing with lilies in her front yard

(All quotes are direct from the original conversation).
I was introduced to Pam while working on a video documenting project with CHAA (Community Health for Asian Americans). I was immediately drawn to Pam’s vibrant and warm personality. CHAA chose Pam to give the organization insight into the Thai community in the Bay Area. While filming, I learned about Pam’s personal journey from Thailand to America.
The Interview

Pam’s name in Thailand was Punchakarn. She is from the Khao Wong District, Kalasin Province in northeastern Thailand. Both of her parents were teachers, and Pam herself was a public school teacher in Thailand for 17 years before leaving that job to teach for two years at the school her family established and ran.  Pam was very passionate when she spoke of her school, which is a private school for students but also provides free education for those coming from poor families. She told me how her school also provides support for students who have been rejected by other institutions. She recalled one student who had been performing poorly at his former school and had behavioral problems. When his parents moved him to Pam’s school, he improved and received good grades. He is now ranked first in the school. “He got all grade A in every subject and his reading is compared to a 6 grader right now. So I am very proud of our school,” Pam said with a smile on her face.

Visiting Pam at her home

Unfortunately, her school fell into debt due to economic difficulties in Thailand. The government cut its budget, so the school soon faced money troubles. Because of this, Pam decided to come to the US to earn more income for the school. To her, the United States provided the opportunity to make enough money to pay off the debts sooner, and she felt that she could use her English skills to accomplish this.
When Pam first came to America, she was undocumented and came to Los Angeles, where she worked at a Thai restaurant. Pam recalls, “Working in a Thai restaurant was very hard because I had to work 12-14 hours continuously with no break.  I  worked from 10:30 in the morning until 11:30 at night. I almost died the first week because I felt so exhausted. I went back to the place where I lived and just slept.   I didn’t want to eat at all for many days. I felt very bad both physically and mentally. I almost gave up many times but I didn’t.  I had to encourage myself so that I could keep working.  I told myself that no Pam, you can not give up because you have some big goals to accomplish.  I tried to keep moving forward, but it was very very tough”.

Outside of her apartment

During her time in L.A., Pam faced what she considered to be the most difficult time in her life. She was let go from the Thai restaurant due to slow business.  She had no money for rent or food. Pam recalls, “I got to the point where I only had 50 cents left in my pocket. 50 cents! Maybe it was time to go back home because I didn’t see a future here. However I tried to think about how I could survive.  Therefore I decided to borrow five dollars from my housemate and bought a day pass ticket." She explained, “In L.A. with a day pass, you can get unlimited rides on any bus or subway all day long until midnight. I got on the bus to try to find a job for the day so that I could have some money to survive. Fortunately I found a restaurant job for the day.  They said, 'today our head chef was sick so we need you.’ That day I worked as an assistant chef with the owner, and got paid 70 dollars. I used some of it to buy food and then saved some of it for the bus fare so that I could have an opportunity to find more work.”  Pam recalled another time when she was very sick for four days. This was during the time of the Songkram Thai festival in L.A.  Despite her illness, Pam forced herself to attend the festival, where she fatefully met her future employer, who paid for her plane ticket from L.A. to Oakland to have her work as a translator on a publishing project.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Bebe's Story

I've been interested in learning more about the Karen people from Burma ever since my adopted parents, Michael Shafer and Evelind Schecter, established a nonprofit called Warm Heart Worldwide ( http://www.warmheartworldwide.org/ ) that works primarily with Karen people in Northern Thailand. The Karen (pronounced kah-REN) are a minority group that has faced and continues to face intense political oppression from the Burmese military government, causing many of them to escape to the Thai/Burma border as refugees. The border has thousands of Karen who populate several different camps along the border.

Listening to a church sermon in Karen
Bebe is a young Karen woman whom I met in Oakland. After we met, she invited me to her church to learn more about the Karen community here. As Bebe took me through the halls of the church and introduced me to her family, I was a bit overwhelmed by how warm and open the people were around me. More than anything, however, I was interested in hearing Bebe's story. I finally got the chance during lunch, where I had awesome Burmese and Thai food (for me one of the best parts of intercultural connecting is definitely the food!).
Bebe talking to her mother and grandmother

Bebe began by telling me about how her father first came to Thailand from Burma by accident. At sixteen years old, he and some friends crossed the border, then were not allowed back in. He left his old life behind without his family having any clue about his whereabouts. Later, he and Bebe's mother met at the Thai/Burma border and Bebe was subsequently born in the Mae La refugee camp in Thailand. The Mae La camp was set up by the United Nations and is the largest refugee camp in Thailand, with over 45,000 Burmese refugees. Bebe explained how in the camp, families received food every fifteen days, and would get donated clothes, mostly from Japan.

  Karen girls waiting to go into church

When it came to housing, Bebe recalled how, unlike America where “you can live forever,” they had to build a house every year because the homes were made out of bamboo that had to be replaced due to damage caused by heavy rains. Bebe would climb on her house along with her mother to help rebuild.
Walking down the hall of the Burmese Baptist Church

She also explained that the UN didn't provide income for the refugees; they were just given food and a place to live. As a result, her parents worked in the fields to make money. Since there weren't many jobs available outside the camp, people often worked in the fields planting vegetables. Generally though, there weren't really jobs available on the outside, so most young people would work inside the camps after graduating high school.
Origami crane folded by Bebe

Bebe said that many young people would also marry early because they don't know what else to do. Bebe did attend school while in the camp; there were about 22 schools in her camp alone. The schools are not connected with the UN, though. Different schools had different sponsors and different connections.