The Urge to Scribble

September 25, 2007

“If I do not protest then my country will never be free”

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I am at the Labour Party Conference in Bournemouth but at the moment my mind is not on party politics but half a world away in Burma. A couple of years ago I interviewed Ko Aung, a human rights campaigner from Burma, for my old university magazine. The experience of talking to him impacted greatly upon my thinking on democracy and human rights. With the turmoil in his home country, now seemed the right time to put the article up.


If I do not protest then my country will never be free’

Tamsin James talks to an individual who has taken a very personal stand against human rights abuses…

At Royal Holloway we often complain about our Student Union. We would probably miss it if it was not there but it does not seem particularly important. In Burma when the military seized power in 1962 one of their first acts was to dynamite the main Student’s Union building. Since then Students movements have been outlawed and many students have been imprisoned for daring to protest. Ko Aung was one of these students. For us, protesting is part of being a student. But would you dare to protest if you knew that you would end up in jail? If it led to your family and friends being persecuted? That is the situation for students in Burma. And you thought we had something to complain about.

I first heard Ko Aung speak last October at Reading University. What he said was hard to forget. But what impressed me was the realisation that he was putting everything he had into a cause he really believes in and that has changed the course of his life. He has sacrificed the contact with family and friends that we take for granted in his attempt to improve the situation in Burma. While working full time as a sound engineer for the BBC in London, he also spends all his free time raising awareness of the situation in Burma and campaigning for change, working with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. ‘I basically have two full-time jobs’ he said, ‘one to survive myself, the other to help other people survive.’ I can attest to this, as when I talked to Ko Aung during his lunch hour, his mobile phone barely stopped ringing. Continual requests arrive from Burmese refugees fleeing persecution for support and help with their applications to remain in this country, as well as their barristers and solicitors. He is very much a man with a mission.

Ko Aung, himself, fled Burma in 1996. In 1988, he had been involved in student uprisings that led to him being imprisoned for seven years. On his release he was kept practically under house arrest due to his refusal to sign a legal document guaranteeing that he would not become involved in politics. In December 1996, he again protested with thousands of other students before fleeing to England. ‘Friends who protested then have been sentenced to twenty-seven years in prison,’ he told me. Ko Thet Win Aung, the leader of the student movement, has been sentenced to sixty-one years. He has spent much of that time in solitary confinement.

When Ko Aung arrived in England he had to totally rebuild his life. ‘When I came I thought very carefully about my future.’ He learnt English and attended an HND course at UCL. ‘I needed an education and a proper job. I am a refugee here but I want to show the government and politicians that I still contribute to the country and society. It is very closed minded to think that refugees cannot do this.’ He now canvasses the government over asylum issues. ‘The worst thing is the fast track scheme,’ he told me. When I mentioned the Conservative plans to limit immigration by quota he could not help but smile in a slightly exasperated way. ‘It’s totally outrageous.’

Much of the work Ko Aung does is to help other Burmese refugees in this country. ‘My job is to assist the caseworkers. Sometimes I go to court as a character witness and to testify as to the consequences if the person is returned to Burma.’ What particularly frustrates him is the contradiction in government policy toward his country. ‘The Home Office think that a Burmese refugee, if they are sent back, will be safe, that Burma is a safe country. But the Foreign Office officially sees Burma as a serious risk. And I say that it is not safe to send people back to Burma.’

Ko Aung is also concerned with educational opportunities, both in Burma and for refugees who have come to England. ‘There is a lack of education in Burma, the military use it as a means to retain power. We need to get education to all the people, not just to the privileged.’ One attempt he made to improve educational possibilities in Burma was petitioning the British embassy in Rangoon to increase access to its library. At the moment, membership costs around $30, a lot for the average person. However, the embassy maintain the charge because there is limited capacity in the library and this is a way to restrict it. It seems to be a vicious circle, cutting the poorest out. ‘When I talked to the government they told me that the Overseas Development Agency was giving money to Burma but that does not go down to the bottom, it goes to the regime and there is no countercheck of where the money is spent.’

Education is very important for the future of Burma.’ With this in mind Ko Aung is helping Burmese refugees find places at universities in this country. Three students are already studying at LSE but finding funding is problematic. ‘Atlantic College in Cardiff give a full scholarship but most other universities give the tuition fees so we still need to find money for living costs.’ He is determined to expand the project though and has Royal Holloway in his sights. ‘Please see if your university wants to help,’ he said. His campaigning really does never stop.

When I asked Ko Aung about his plans for the future he said: ‘Of course I hope to return to Burma, that is why all my energies go into the cause of freedom and democracy. We have to have hope that things will change, else we can’t achieve anything. Thinking back, those living under the Roman or the Ottoman of even the English Empire could not see its end but now they are gone. The same will be true in Burma.’ He looks forward to being reunited with his family who were harassed by the military while he was incarcerated. ‘One of the reasons I fled was so as not to inflict terror and pain on my family, especially my lovely Mum.’ He has no contact with them as any letter or phone call from him leads to a renewal of harassment from the authorities.

It is over forty years since the Burmese military ceased power in 1962 and we need proper international action against the regime but not war. There are United Nations resolutions every year and world leaders ask for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi but nothing happens. We need targeted sanctions and support for the people at the bottom.’ Interfering in other countries has become a bit of a political hot potato since Iraq and many commentators have said that democracy is a western value alien to other cultures. Ko Aung begged to disagree. ‘Democracy practically has nothing to do with West or East. It has to do with human freedom, with freedom of education and freedom of thought. It is a basic human right that everybody needs. When I was supporting an application for asylum in court in this country a judge asked me “Why did you keep protesting when you knew you would end up in prison?” but what else is there to do? How else can we change things? If I do not protest then my country will not be free.’


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