“I would very much like the young people of Burma to be able to communicate with young people abroad so we can find new ways of helping to bring our struggle to a victorious end.” Aung San Suu Kyi.
“Every country has a success story to tell. Some like to boast about a citizen with no hands who can still write, or another with no legs who can still run. But there is no other country like Burma. Here we have generals able to rule a country for 40 years with no brains!” Zargana, imprisoned Burmese comedian.
I was recently fortunate enough to travel to Thailand to spend some time with some Burmese youth in exile there. Some told me their stories, of how they had survived imprisonment and the customary torture and abuse that accompanies it. Others spoke of how much they missed the families they had left behind and not seen in ten years and perhaps would not get to see ever again. They also spoke of wanting change for their country and how they’d like to return one day.
Meeting these young people I realized that in many ways they represent the future of their country. If change is going to come, it will most likely be through the efforts of youth like these who have already had to suffer the most. But it will also need the help of other young people around the region who can offer this without sacrificing anything of our own lives.
A history of youth demanding human rights
Youth have always been active in promoting positive human rights change in Burma. Students have been organizing since at least 1903 and on December 5, 1920 students held a successful strike for greater access to education which ultimately led to the establishment of National Schools. In the 1930s and early 40s student leaders like Aung San were instrumental in bringing about national independence. Taking inspiration from these earlier successes, university students in the three major cities of Rangoon, Mandalay and Moulmein took part in a number of protests in the 1960s and 1970s.[i]
Of course the demonstrations of 1988 were largely organised and led by young people, including high school and university students. Often the cause of these protests was to demand the release of fellow students, many who had themselves been arrested for exercising their basic freedoms. And again in 1996, students took the streets to mark the anniversary of the death of student Ko Phone Maw and five others who had been killed by the Burmese armed forces while protesting outside Rangoon Institute of Technology in 1988 and later to demand the right of students to form unions to represent themselves.
Most recently, the monk-led protests known as the Saffron Revolution of 2007 were in fact begun by members of the 88 Generation Students Group, consisting of former students who had been part of the 1988 demonstrations. Many leaders from this group received a prison sentence of 65 years for their involvement and still remain behind bars.
Young people today
One active youth movement making itself known inside Burma is Generation Wave. Generation Wave practices non-violent protest by spreading its message through graffiti and music. With many members already imprisoned, the rest must keep their identities secret or risk arrest.[ii]
Overcoming the odds: What is it like to be a young person in Burma?
While none of the following issues are in themselves isolated to Burma alone, the picture painted when considering all of these factors together is perhaps singularly grim. Those things many of us take for granted simply don’t exist for most young people growing up in Burma, a country where one in three is under the age of 15.[iii]
Take education. According to the United Nations, more than half of all children fail to complete a primary school education.[iv] There are many different factors contributing to this such as parents lacking the money needed to pay for their children’s education and internal displacement due to regional conflicts, but this clearly limits options for many young people. Amazingly, sometimes displaced villagers in hiding take the matter of their family’s education into their own hands, even improvising blackboards out of rocks when there are no classrooms.[v]
Take health. Again, relying on UN statistics, we can see that one in three children under the age of 5 suffers from malnutrition.[vi] On top of this, one in ten children will die before their fifth birthday. In conflict zones, this doubles, meaning roughly one in five children living in conflict zones will die before their fifth birthday.[vii]
Take employment. There are still thousands of child soldiers in Burma despite the United Nations receiving assurances from the Burmese authorities that this practice will end and the release and return of 265 children between 2004 and 2009.[viii] Aside from ten ethnic or regional armed groups (non-state armed groups or NSAGs) who are still believed to be bringing children into their ranks, the largest party recruiting and using children is the Burmese state armed forces, the Tatmadaw Kyi.[ix] These children are often abducted and subjected to other forms of forced labour and abuse including trafficking and rape.[x] The reality is that the prospect of joining the Burmese Armed Forces, the Tatmadaw Kyi is the only hope of achieving a well paying job for some.
Across the country young women face gender-based violence including gang rape. Rape of women and girls, some as young as 7 years old, has been widely reported. Rape of young boys, also as young as 7, has also been reported.[xi]
What is it like to be a political prisoner in Burma?
While Burmese authorities consistently deny that there are political prisoners in Burma, there are believed to be around 2,200 still in custody (see Assistance Association for Political Prisoners http://www.aappb.org/ for the most recent estimates). According to Human Rights Watch, political prisoners are being held in 43 prisons across the country and more than 50 labor camps where prisoners are forced to carry out hard labour.[xii]
Political prisoners are routinely tortured and subject to physical, psychological and sexual abuse. Many are also denied basic healthcare. Many are sent to prisons far away from their homes, preventing their families from having access to them and often making it impossible for them to receive the medical treatment they need. At the time of the last report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur, 138 political prisoners were being denied the medical treatment they needed and 144 political prisoners had already died in custody between 1988 and May 19, 2010.[xiii]
Let’s look at the case of three Karenni youth, recently imprisoned for exercising their basic rights. Khun Bedu, Khun Kawrio and Khun Dee De were all members of a group called Kayan New Generation Youth (KNGY). They were arrested on May 10, 2008 and are currently each serving over 30 years for encouraging people to vote against the 2008 constitution by handing out pamphlets, spray-painting on walls and signposts, and releasing balloons. Like others, they went through a period of interrogation and torture, finally being sentenced by a military court without even receiving a trial or appearing before the court. According to Amnesty International, the three “were beaten with sticks, kicked and forced to kneel on stones. Their mouths were taped up to stop them screaming and plastic bags were put over their heads. They were also made to lie in the sun for several hours at a time, when the temperature reached over 30 degrees Celsius.”[xiv]
The Burmese authorities have granted a number of amnesties to prisoners in recent years. In September of 2008 and in February of 2009, 9,000 and then another 6,000 prisoners were released respectively, but of the first lot only eight of these were political prisoners and only 31 from the second.[xv]
What does all this mean for you?
This will mean what you choose it to mean. Hopefully this will encourage you to take action for the people of Burma. Political prisoners are often those risking the most to defend basic human rights and they need your support.
I have met many Burmese people who have either fled their country in exile or who are studying abroad on government scholarships. I also have a very dear Burmese friend who is currently carrying out human rights research inside the country. Many Burmese want to speak out against the abuses of their government, but most are simply too afraid to do so. They share a concern for their own safety as well as that of their friends and families who would be put at risk should the Burmese authorities decide their question their activity. Many parents who were once active in defending their own human rights know the risks involved and prefer their family members to stay together rather than risk separation or worse.
Even by simply reading this, you are exercising a basic freedom not enjoyed by young people in Burma. So your voice is very important. You can make a difference for the people of Burma. Help us call on the Burmese authorities to immediately release all political prisoners inside the country and to respect the three basic freedoms of expression, association and assembly today.
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We need your help today. Serious human rights abuses continue inside Burma and many are denied the opportunity to defend their rights. The three basic freedoms of association, assembly and expression are consistently denied, and many young political prisoners, some your age or even younger, face a bleak future without any real freedom in sight.
With your help, regional youth can present a united voice in support of the three freedoms for the people of Burma, calling on regional governments to increase pressure on the Burmese authorities to respect basic human rights and release all political prisoners immediately.
Act now by getting involved in our Asia Pacific Youth Network (APYN) Burma Campaign Team. We’re looking for motivated youth form around the Asia Pacific region to take the lead in your own countries. We’re especially interested in youth from ASEAN countries taking part. There will be many ways to get involved and everyone is welcome and encouraged to join!
Find out how to register your interest in joining the Burma Campaign Team HERE.
Burma Youth Campaign Team
[i] Fink, C. 2009. Living in Silence in Burma: Surviving Under Military Rule. London: Zed Books, pp. 16, 38 – 42.
[ii] See Harvey, R. (February 24, 2010). Burma’s Youth Rapping for Change. BBC News. Accessed at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8518137.stm, Schearf, D. (November 18, 2010) Young Activists Use Music, Graffiti to Push for Democracy in Burma. Voice of America. Available at: http://www.voanews.com/english/news/Young-Activists-Use-Music-Graffiti-to-Push-for-Democracy-in-Burma-108977359.html [both accessed 6 December 2010].
[iii] World Health Organisation. ‘Myanmar: Country Health System Profile’. WHO Regional Office for South East Asia. Available from: http://www.searo.who.int/EN/Section313/Section1522_10916.htm [accessed 6 December 2010]. Also see UNICEF, ‘At a glance: Myanmar’. Available at http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/myanmar_statistics.html [accessed 6 December 2010].
[iv] UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, 7 March 2008, A/HRC/7/18, p. 7, available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/47df8fc82.html [accessed 6 December 2010].
[v] Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict. 2009. No More Denial: Children Affected by Armed Conflict in Myanmar (Burma), p. 27. Available at
http://www.watchlist.org/reports/pdf/myanmar/myanmar_english_full.pdf [accessed 6 December 2010].
[vi] UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur, 7 March 2008, p. 7.
[vii] WHO. ‘Myanmar’; Watchlist. No More Denial, p. 31.
[viii] UN Security Council, Conclusions on children and armed conflict in Myanmar, 28 October 2009, S/AC.51/2009/4, p. 2, available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/4c91ec2c2.html [accessed 6 December 2010].
[ix] UN Secretary General (UNSG), Children and armed conflict: report of the Secretary-General, 13 April 2010, A/64/742 – S/2010/181, available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/4bfcce6a2.html [accessed 6 December 2010].
[x] Human Rights Watch, 2007. Sold to Be Soldiers: The Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers in Burma, p. 37. Accessed at http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2007/10/30/sold-be-soldiers [accessed 6 December 2010].
[xi] Watchlist, p. 38.
[xii] Human Rights Watch. ‘Key facts about Burma’s political prisoners’. Available at: http://www.hrw.org/free-burmas-prisoners/prisoners/key-facts [accessed 6 December 2010].
[xiii] UN General Assembly, Situation of human rights in Myanmar, 15 September 2010, A/65/368, pp. 9 – 11, available at:
http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/4cbbe7f22.html [accessed 6 December 2010].
[xiv] Amnesty International New Zealand. ‘Factsheet: Myanmar’s Prisoners of Conscience’. Myanmar Freedom Campaign. Available at: http://www.amnesty.org.nz/our-work/myanmar-freedom-campaign [accessed 6 December 2010].
[xv] Human Rights Watch. 2009. Burma’s Forgotten Prisoners. Available at http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2009/08/08/burma-s-forgotten-prisoners [accessed 6 December 2010].