THAN WIN HTUT
JULY | 10
S A M P S O N I A WAY
Burma: Shouts for Freedom
Burmese Media Revolution By Silvia Duarte
Shouts for freedom from exile nable to catch his breath as the torturer pummelled his chest, Aung Thwin was becoming lightheaded. The interrogator asked him for the tenth time: “Do you work for Democratic Voice of Burma?” “No, I don’t,” Aung Thwin hoarsely repeated. Images of the interrogator flickered before his eyes, reminding him of 1990, when he was arrested and tortured until his blood-soaked shirt stuck to his body—the reason why his posture is altered to this day. The Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) is a multimedia organization based in Norway that has a website—in English and Burmese—and a radio and a tv station that broadcasts into Burma. Answering “Yes, I work for DVB” could mean a minimum of 20 years in prison for Aung Thwin. And if that happened, all the risks Aung Thwin took in the past would have been wasted. Since 2006 he has walked Rangoon’s streets trying to appear calm while smuggling in his pockets devices that to the Burmese government were as dangerous as a bomb: a USB with forbidden information and a camera with his images. In 2006 he secretly filmed a documentary about children dying in the hospital during a dengue epidemic and, as a result, the government forbade the use of cameras in the hospitals. Through his images, he also exposed one of the most corrupt businesses of the Burmese generals: the Highway Express Bus Company—the Burmese equivalent of Greyhound. During the military’s crackdown on monks during the 2007 Saffron Revolution, his footage captured four soldiers carrying the body of Kenji Nagai, a 50-yearold Japanese photojournalist murdered by Burmese troops. Aung Thwin sent that image to the DVB and they shared it with the world. The Burmese government couldn’t deny its crime and the Japanese government couldn’t deny its anger. However the Intelligence Police wasn’t able to find any evidence against Aung Thwin, and, as a result, he was only sentenced to two years. In jail he met a fellow journalist of DVB who had been sentenced to 17 years and tortured until his body was unrecognizable. Some of these video journalist’s stories and videos were shown in the film documentary Burma VJ—nominated for an Academy Award in 2009.
Journalists in Burma; some are currently in jail. Courstesy of Aung Thwin.
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“Media in exile is our voice to wake up the world about the tragic situation in Burma.” AUNG THWIN
From London, where Aung Thwin was granted asylum, he talked by phone with Sampsonia Way, telling his story for the first time since his release. One thing he repeats again and again in defiance is “Yes I did. I worked for DVB.” He adds, “Media in exile is our voice to wake up the world about the tragic situation in Burma.” The only uncensored news about Burma comes from outside the country, created and published by journalists in exile. With the help of undercover reporters such as Aung Thwin, they are free to provide news on the pro–democracy movement inside the country and to expose the brutality of the military regime. They cover news that the regime would prefer to hide, such as the Saffron Revolution and the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2009. Members of the media in exile also cover ongoing issues that affect the population on a daily basis including forced labor, land confiscation, and extortion. According to Htet Aung Kyaw, a Norway-based journalist, there are three main types of media run by the Burmese exile community: broadcast media (radio and TV), Internet news agencies, and blogs. Sampsonia Way presents the stories of three leaders in each type of media. These are men who spend their lives transmitting Burma’s news inside their country and to the world. They are proud to say that, thanks to the images and articles they edit, some Western governments have imposed sanctions on the Burmese government. After Aung Thwin’s images of Kenji Nagai’s body surfaced, Japan withdrew $4.7 million in aid to Burma. (Following Cyclone Nargis, Japan resumed their support.) (top two photos) Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai killed by soldiers in Rangoon; (bottom two photos) Saffron Revolution. Courstesy of Aung Thwin.
he government began to persecute Than Win Htut in 1991, when he and some of his colleagues published a book without the “blessing” of the censorship committee. That year the police arrested two of his friends involved and weeks after came to the house where Than Win Htut was hidden. He hid on the roof, trembling as he watched the security forces handcuff his friends.
Than Win Htut and Democratic Voice of Burma
Photo courstesy ofThan Win Htut
At the end of 2002 Than Win Htut travelled to Cambodia to attend a journalism training program organized by the New York Times. “As a result of the training I realized that I could still write in exile and I wouldn’t have to be afraid of the censorship. So I decided not to go back to Burma,” he said from Norway via Skype. After the training, he went to Thailand and wrote for English and Burmese newspapers. In 2004 the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) offered him a job as a senior radio reporter. DVB is a non-profit media organization that began in Norway in 1991 after the Burmese government barred Aung San Suu Kyi from
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traveling there to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. Now DVB is the best example of what the Burmese foreign–based broadcast media can do. In “Strategies of an Exile Media Organization,” DVB deputy director Khin Maung Win explains how DVB uses a variety of strategies to get their signal into Burma. The first strategy is to broadcast via shortwave radio, which can reach everywhere in the country and is highly effective because the regime cannot block the signal. Among the other well-known radio stations broadcasting from outside of the country are the Burmese services of the British Broadcasting Cooperation, Voice of America, and Radio Free Asia. Another strategy of DVB is to use satellite TV. It is estimated that about 10 million Burmese have access to satellite TV. “Millions of Burmese nowadays are tuning into many foreign TV channels via satellite dishes. During the 1990s, people started putting up satellite dishes, and the government allowed it because it gets revenue from each registration fee,” Khin Maung Win wrote. DVB launched its television news service in May 2005. According to Khin Maung Win, this is the only independent Burmese TV channel that millions of people inside Burma can rely on. However, he added that analysts believe that as many as 95 percent of the dishes in the country are unregistered and technically illegal. These can be removed at any time. In May 2005 Than Win Htut left his radio position and joined the TV team. Since 2006 he has been producing the evening news program and coordinating two networks of reporters: one of exiled correspondents throughout Thailand, India, and China, and another of undercover reporters inside Burma. Than Win Htut explained that undercover reporters working for DVB include both citizen journalists, who are volunteers, and paid members of the staff. When the volunteers learn about abuses by the local authorities—if they see police taking a person to jail or they witness forced labor—they want the exiled media to know about it. “Just like the people on whom they report, these citizen journalists are themselves victims of political persecution, poverty, and suffering. They want to change their lives, and they trust in the exiled media to do it. So they have become citizen journalists,” Than Win Htut said. In rural communities, where only one person has a phone, Than Win Htut explained that people will line up 20 to 30 deep to use it. They are not waiting to talk with their family or their friends; they are waiting to talk with DVB or other media outlets. The news services pay for phone calls, but don’t compensate these people or their time. In 2009, the 2,300-year-old Danok pagoda mysteriously collapsed during renovation. One of the volunteers reported to DVB: “There are about 60 to 70
soldiers in the pagoda’s premises, and they are telling people to say that no one was killed or hurt when someone asks. About fifty people are still trapped underneath the debris.” Unlike the volunteers who report news as it is happening, the staff reporters are paid to do investigative reporting on assignment. Than Win Htut explained that these reporters don’t use an office as a way to avoid persecution. And their fear has a solid basis: police in Burma seem to be omnipresent. Many times when Than Win Htut is in the middle of a very serious conversation with a volunteer, the phone call gets cut. “Other times we can hear interference, noises, and most of the cases that means that someone from the Intelligence Department of the government is listening to us to send his report. Some reporters have already been arrested in that way,” Than Win Htut added. Because some of the staff and volunteers have small cameras, they are always under police surveillance. “Sometimes the reporters are caught filming and they must pretend to be doing something “We can hear interference, else. They say ‘I’m just trying out this camera’ or noises, and most of the ‘this is my uncle’s and I’m just playing with it.’ cases that means that But most of the time that doesn’t work and they someone of Intelligence are arrested,” Than Win Htut said. Department of the governMany DVB journalists have been arrested in ment is listening to us the past two years, and at least ten have received to send his report. Some prison terms of up to 50 years. That illustrates reporters have already why the protection of sources—both volunteers been arrested in that way.” and reporters—is an obsession for editors and THAN WIN HTUT coordinators of Burmese media in exile. Failure to protect sources will result in imprisonments that will lead to loss of trust and inability to keep the in-country network alive. And when a reporter is arrested, Than Win Htut and the other editors must be very careful. The reporters often deny that they were working with DVB during interrogation, so a wrong word from the editors could mean a longer sentence. “Sometimes organizations like Reporters without Borders call us and ask: ‘Is he or she [a person in jail] your reporter?’ We can’t say yes or no. Anyway, in some cases the family of the prisoner ask us to say his name to gain the attention of the international media,” Than Win Htut said. Under these difficult circumstances, DVB—and other media outlets that work with undercover volunteers and reporters—also face another big problem: the verification of their information. “Verifying if what people are saying
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is the truth is difficult. Sometimes other volunteers help us to do it, but we have to be careful because the military regime has infiltrators in all levels of society,” Than Win Htut explained. Even though this journalist and the rest of DVB staff are aware of the consequences, they often try to verify information with officers, ministers, or other official sources. “The problem is that they refuse to talk with us. If they know we are from DVB, they don’t answer or they drop the phone. When they answer, it’s because they don’t know that the call is from DVB.” Throughout this interview, Than Win Htut spoke fluent English until he was asked about the situation of his family in Burma. He answered that they are not at risk, but his words were almost unintelligible. To share thoughts about highly charged emotions is difficult for a non-native speaker and his unclear words expressed his fear: no one with relatives who are exiled journalist can be completely safe in Burma. Insein Prison (below)
According to a former inmate, Insein houses 10,000 inmates in its approximately 310,000 square meters. In comparison, Cook County Jail in Illinois houses 9,800 inmates in 390,000 square meters.
In 1991, Kyaw Zwa was sentenced to 10 years in the Insein Prison (left), notorious for inhumane and dirty conditions, prisoner abuse, and use of mental and physical torture. He was there for eight years.
Kyaw Zwa and the Irrawaddy magazine Photo courstesy of Kyaw Zwa Moe J U LY 2 0 1 0
hen Kyaw Zwa Moe was in high school, it was easy for him to grab a book from his home library of more than two thousand volumes. He was especially attracted to books about Burmese history, politics, and literature. Thanks to that, he said, the idea of democracy was foremost in his mind. When the pro-democracy movement began, he became a leading member of the student union in his school. On September 18, 1988, the now-ruling junta staged a bloody coup and the military authorities launched a crackdown against all political organizations. Kyaw Zwa’s union went underground. He and his fellows continued their political activities until their arrests in 1991. Kyaw Zwa was sentenced to 10 years in the Insein Prison, notorious for inhumane and dirty conditions, prisoner abuse, and use of mental and physical torture. He was there for eight years. In prison he improved his English. Prison guards who were sympathetic to jailed activists, smuggled American magazines into his cell. “I unintentionally learned journalistic writing when I read stories published in Time and Newsweek. I never wanted to be a politician; I wanted to be independent, and I thought that writing for a journal or magazine could be my way,” he said via email. One year after his release, Kyaw Zwa fled to Thailand and joined Irrawaddy magazine as a reporter and researcher. Irrawaddy magazine is publication of the Irrawaddy Publishing Group (IPG), founded in 1992 by Kyaw Zwa’s brother Aung Zaw. Published online in both Burmese and English, it is regarded as one of the leading publications on political, social, economic, and cultural issues in Burma. In addition to news, the magazine features in-depth political analysis and interviews with a wide range of Burma experts and other influential figures. International media outlets frequently cite it as a source of reliable information. Other Internet news services based in exile are Mizzima, The New Era Journal, and Network Media Group. In 2005 Kyaw Zwa received a scholarship to attend University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism as a visiting scholar. “After having studied and worked as a journalist, I fell in love with this profession,” Kyaw Zwa added. Now, as a managing editor of the Irrawaddy, his concerns are the accuracy and balance of the articles they publish and “to provide regular training to our staff reporters and to recruit good journalists.” Kya Zwa’s biggest preoccupation is the safety of his undercover correspondents. Some Irrawaddy’s reporters are also inside Burma and they work in a very risky environment. However, he doesn’t know exactly how many readers have access to Irrawaddy inside Burma: the magazine is banned in his country, as are other Internet news services based in exile.
People who want to read Irrawaddy have to use proxy servers, which is as difficult as it is dangerous. According to Reporters without Borders, just 0.5 percent of the Burmese population has access to the Internet, thus individual subscriptions are very expensive and subject to the government authorization. Internet cafĂŠs are under strict surveillance: their owners are required to take screen shots of each computer every five minutes and must be prepared to provide every userâ€™s ID and telephone number when the police request them. Irrawaddy, Mizzima, and DVB have all been targets of cyber attacks. Kyaw Zwa is sure that the government is going to be more aggressive this year because of the coming elections. Even though government sources say they will guarantee a fair, multiparty election, the strongest leaders of the opposition parties cannot participate because they are under arrest. The pro-democracy movements claim that the election is just a farce of the junta, and Burmese news services in exile report this election represents a challenge in terms of coverage. Irrawaddy has built a new website just to publish content about the elections. Kyaw Zwa knows that as an exile his risks are less than for those inside Burma. However his responsibilities seem bigger than before. Now he has to try to be objective when he writes about a government that has hurt him in a direct way; he has to deal with more readers, both fans and adversaries; and he is more conscious of the difficulties to defeating the regime.
Maung Yit and MoeMaKa
aung Yit joined the Burmese democracy movement while studying electrical engineering at Rangoon University. After graduating in 1993, he became a writer and cartoonist for local magazines and journals. During that time he developed his skills as a technology journalist. Five years later, almost totally giving up hope for the struggle for democracy and freedom of the press in Burma, he left to find a job to support his family. In 2002, he arrived in Fairfield, Iowa, to study computer science.
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He had wanted move to Silicon Valley and pursue an IT job, but he ended up in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2003, he and his friends founded MoeMaKa Media, an Internet news source, as a way to combine freedom of press and Internet activism and reignite their struggle for democracy. In 2006 MoeMaKa’s founders decided to diversify their format to get around the government censors inside Burma and started using the blog format to present their content. MoeMaKa’s is one of 800 active Burmese blogs. According to a survey conducted by the Burma Media Association in August 2009, most of the blogs are hosted by BlogSpot and WordPress. Eighty percent are in Burmese, 8 percent in English, and 10 percent are bilingual. Three-fourths of the bloggers are between the ages 21 and 35 and have a college education. Over half of these bloggers are living in Burma and began blogging less than two years ago. The majority focus on entertainment-related topics. Only 8 percent discuss news-related subjects—one of those is by Maung Yit. Over email, Maung Yit remembered some of the news items that MoeMaka published. One was a video in which desperate Burmese parents talk about watching the army take their children to become child soldiers. The blogger also remembered the May 2010 drought when Burmese people were facing a scarcity of potable water in many areas during a record heat wave. “With the help of community volunteers’ groups and citizen journalists, we could report the news, raise charity from overseas, and help the Burmese community,” he said. The freedom that the MoeMaKa writers have to publish this kind of news is completely unavailable for the bloggers inside the country. In 2009 the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) named the 10 Worst Countries to be a Blogger. Burma leads the dishonor roll. This is because of cases like that of Nay Phone Latt, a blogger who was honored by the 2010 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award from the PEN American Center. Nay Phone Latt had a popular blog that offered political commentary and poetry, both expressing the frustrations and hopes of a generation eager to make its mark on society. He was also the owner of two Internet cafés. In 2007 he published news and photographs of the Saffron Revolution. In January 2008 he was arrested and sentenced to 12 years in prison. He is currently being held in Pa-an Prison in Karen state, 135 miles from his home in Rangoon, making it difficult for his family to visit.
According to Maung Yit, MoeMaKa includes bloggers from inside Burma. “We have at least 5 to 10 regular contributors inside Burma. We can’t reveal their actual names and identities,” he said. MoeMaKa’s volunteers don’t receive financial compensation. “It is just artists and media people’s passion to work for the same cause for Burma. We raise funds and accept donations to run our operation at minimum cost and to support basic material and tools for our team inside Burma. We are now registered as a nonprofit organization.” Now MoeMaKa is a well-known website and blog among the Burmese community; most of the Burmese bloggers are willing and happy to publish there. Maung Yit plays different roles: he is a webmaster, editor, writer, reporter, cartoonist, columnist, and jack-of-all-trades. After more than 20 years fighting against the junta’s censorship, he just sighs. He still hopes for a miracle: to be able to walk through Burma’s democratic streets.
“During the drought, Burmese people were facing a scarcity of potable water. With the help of community volunteers’ groups and citizen journalists, we could report the news and raise charity from overseas.” MAUNG YIT (ABOVE)
Maung Yit at MoeMaKa. Courtesy of Maung Yit
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To survive as a Burmese monk in the United States is a hard and long battle By Silvia Duarte
the monk 14
Last September, 15 exiled Burmese monks came from all over the United States to walk in a line through Pittsburgh streets. They started on the Northside, made their way past PNC Park, the Pirates’ baseball stadium, and ended up among downtown’s rows of skyscrapers. They chanted the sutra of loving kindness in front of curious passers-by. It was the G-20 summit and the monks and their supporters walked peacefully through throngs of uniforms of security forces. They hoped the march would catch the attention of the international community. They expected the presidents of the most powerful countries—then gathered in Pittsburgh—would consider intervening. It has been 47 years since the dictatorship came to power in Burma and changed everything, even the name of their country, which the military junta insists is Myanmar.
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The final monk was 25-year-old Venerable U Ashin Kovida. From the back, his relaxed gait made him seem like a teenager without worries. However, U Kovida cracked his knuckles nervously as he remembered the Saffron Revolution. The Saffron Revolution was a series of anti-government demonstrations in Burma that took place during the month of September 2007 and was named for the color of the monks’ robes. On September 27, U Kovida and thousands of monks were marching in Rangoon, the former Burmese capital. Security forces sprayed bullets into the crowd, killing an unknown number of protestors. “Today I was thinking of the people desperately running and thinking of the friends we lost trying to save the country,” U Kovida said walking back to the Pittsburgh’s Northside from downtown. The Saffron Revolution The event that stretched the Burmese population’s patience to their limit— and triggered the Saffron Revolution—was an increase of fuel prices: the price of diesel was doubled, the cost of petrol was increased by over 60 percent, and the price of compressed natural gas went up by a staggering 500 percent. This lead to increases in the prices of other basic products in a country where the average income has been $50 per month since the middle of 2006, according to the United Nations. People were starving and demanded better living conditions. In order to stop the government’s actions, thousands of monks—lead by the All Burma Monks’ Alliance—marched for 10 consecutive days. Approximately a hundred thousand people followed them through the streets of cities across the country. U Kovida was one of the leaders of that march. With a megaphone in his hands, he exhorted people to take part of the demonstration. “I really thought that we could defeat the government. I never thought they would dare to shoot; but they did,” he said, crossing the Roberto Clemente Bridge in Pittsburgh two years later. While the Burmese government said that 30 people died during the Saffron Revolution, human rights groups claim the number of killings was more than 200. The photos and TV images of the September 27 stampede are terrifying. One picture only shows sandals: sandals of those who rushed away in terror; sandals of those who were caught by the police; sandals sprinkled by blood; sandals of those who stopped breathing at that moment.
Photos: Renee Rosensteel
â€œToday, I was thinking of the people desperately running and thinking of the friends we lost trying to save the country.â€? U ASHIN KOVIDA (LEFT)
Monks and supporters at the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh.
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Venerable U Ashin Nayaka who fled Burma in 2002 before the Saffron Revolution, led the Pittsburgh march. He said by email in May 2010: “There are many things we still don’t know after the military’s crackdown. Three years ago there were over 30,000 monks in Rangoon and now there are only approximately 6,000.” U Nayaka said that he and other leaders of monks’ organizations know for certain that some of the monks are in prison or in forced labor camps, and that many others were compelled to disrobe and give up their vows for their own and their families’ safety. “But are all of the rest of monks alive? Where are the monks?” he asked. The Saffron Revolution was not the first time that the monks were at the forefront of major anti-government demonstrations. In 1974 and 1988 they demonstrated in support of students’ movements. U Nayaka explains why the monks have gotten involved in these acts during the military regime: “Monks’ uprisings are not struggles for political power. They are revolutions of spirit that aim to change Burma. With loving kindness we intended to change minds and hearts of Burma’s generals. Struggle against people’s suffering is a teaching inherited from Buddha.” Because they shared U Nayaka’s philosophy, monks were killed and jailed during the Saffron Revolution. Nayaka estimates there are 248 monks currently in jail in Burma, almost all of whom were arrested after the Saffron Revolution. Fled Burma for their lives Hundreds of monks fled Burma to avoid being the target of the merciless Burmese police. The following story—U Kovida’s story—illustrates some of the adversities they faced to disguise themselves from the Burmese armed forces and the difficulties of being a monk in a Western culture. U Kovida got a fake passport in October 2007. He changed his robe for jeans and dyed his hair, which was slowly growing in after years of being shaved in the traditional monks’ manner. The day he crossed the Thailand border, the official newspaper The New Light of Myanmar accused him of having explosives in his monastery. He was the fifth name on a list of twenty people for whose arrest the dictatorship offered a reward. “They said that we were terrorists,” laughed the monk. “That’s the height of absurdity.” The United Nations Refugee Agency contacted U Kovida in Thailand and arranged his trip to the United States. In March 2008, the monk landed in Oakland, California. U Kovida’s story went round the world. The New York Times published an article about him; a Burmese online publication called him
“a revolution hero;” the House of Representatives’ Human Rights Caucus heard his testimony; and George and Laura Bush talked with him in a democracy leader’s lunch. However, the cameras disappeared fast and U Kovida faced new challenges. He had to rent an apartment, survived an attempted mugging at gunpoint, and withstood crude jokes from teenagers on the streets. He has worked in a thrift store and ridden a bike. These are unthinkable activities for the 400 thousand monks who still live in Burma and survive thanks to community alms. In Burma, where more than 90 percent of people practice Theravada Buddhism, monks depended on community support for their day-to-day survival. Part of Theravada philosophy is that monks should not work outside the monastery. Living in exile A Burmese monk’s life in exile differs depending on the country where they land. They find the most support in Thailand, because it shares Theravada Buddhism’s customs. There monks can find monasteries to live in and people don’t hesitate to give funds to help the clergy. Nevertheless, many monks have to adapt to a culture that doesn’t recognize them as spiritual leaders or share their beliefs. That is the case of those living in other Asian countries such as India, Malaysia, and Bangladesh, or those like U Kovida who live in the West. In the United States there are over 70 Burmese monasteries and about 160 monks, U Nayaka said. Most of them live in Los Angeles, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and New York state—where Burmese immigrants are concentrated. The Burmese monks in exile run three organizations: International Burmese Monks Organization (IBMO), All Burma Monks’ Alliance, and All Burma Young Monks’ Union. They focus on promoting peace, freedom and justice in Burma. “The three organizations are walking in the same direction. We cooperate with monks inside and outside the country to tell the world about the crisis in Burma,” said U Nayaka, who is also the leader of IBMO. U Nayaka added that these three organizations share another concern: the situation of the monks who fled Burma after the Saffron Revolution and face the greatest challenges in this country. “They receive financial assistances from NGOs for three months, but after that they can’t survive without work. Most of these monks have disrobed. They have faced a cultural shock,” said U Nayaka, who also was a visiting scholar at Columbia University.
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Nayaka explains that 70 monks came to the United States after the Saffron Revolution. According to the press agency Reuters, some 38 monks were granted asylum in America after the 2007 crackdown. “Today, just eight of them remain monks,” the article emphasizes. These eight monks are spread over four states. Kovida—who remains a monk and studies at the College of Alameda sponsored by the California government—is still living in Oakland; two others are in Texas; one is in Georgia, and the other four are clinging to their vocation in Utica—some 240 miles north of New York City. 27-year-old Venerable U Agga Nya Na lives in Utica. He also experienced the Saffron Revolution first hand. After being hidden for one month, he escaped to Thailand, where he testified to a delegation from the United States Congress and the ambassador from the U.S. Embassy. He has seen how his friends have been forced to swap their robes for workers uniforms and abandon their monkhood to survive. “Some are now working in chicken factories, and in glove factories. It’s so sad, because they didn’t want to quit their vows, they had to do it,” U Agga Nya Na said by phone in May. In the United States two factors make it hard for Burmese monks. One is that the majority of Buddhists in America aren’t Theravada so they don’t follow the same traditions such as financially supporting the monks. The second is the small number of strong Burmese communities. “The community in Utica, for example, could help some monks, but not all of them,” U Agga Nya Na added. U Kovida explained that some Burmese people in the United States are reluctant to feed monks who fled the country for political reasons. “These people still have family in Burma and they are afraid of the government’s reprisals,” he said. Monks who have the support of the community face their own challenges; the cause of democracy consumes their time and energy. U Nayaka, for example, has testified at the United States Commission of International Religious Freedom, the Japanese Senate, the Brazilian Senate, the Indonesian House, and the Human Right Council in Geneva. He also has lectured at colleges and universities in United States to raise international awareness of humanitarian crisis in Burma. “But traditionally a Buddhist monk has to take a leadership role in providing spiritual guidance to Buddhists, particularly Burmese people,” said the monk. The adversities for Burmese monks in exile differ from person to person, but they exist in every place the monks landed. “And our only crime was to ask for respect for basic human rights,” U Nayaka said.
Almost one year has passed since the fifteen monks walked through the Pittsburgh streets. All of them agreed with the same idea: the future of Burma will be determined not only by karma but also by the courage, faith, and determination of Burma’s people. Nothing has changed since then in their country. Their prayer is the same: to see the end of the repression of Burma. They don’t know when that is going to occur, they just trust the Buddhist principle: “everything changes, nothing last forever.”
CIT Y OF ASYLUM HOSTS MONKS When 15 monks came to Pittsburgh in September, 2009, they and their assistants needed a place to stay. Finding beds for some 35 people isn’t an easy task. City of Aslyum/ Pittsburgh opened its doors and hosted them in its four houses along Sampsonia Way on Pittsburgh’s Northside. The monks were here to march during the G-20 and were supported by Clear View Project, a Buddhist-based American organization that provides resources for relief to monks and for social change in Burma. Henry Reese, director of COA/P, explained why COA/P was involved: “Our current writer-in-residence is from Burma, which is one of the world’s most repressive and secretive regimes. It is also off the radar for most of us, a place about which we know almost nothing. Having the monks stay on the Northside and talk to our neighbors was a good way to create a heightened awareness of the situation in Burma and to help them better understand why a writer from Burma is so easily endangered and needs our help.” The night before the march COA/P organized a screening at The Mattress Factory of Burma VJ, Anders Østergaard’s Academyaward nominated documentary about Burmese video journalists. The monks’ march was seen worldwide in the international press, but they also had a impact on the Northside residents who joined them. Ted Popovich, one of those who marched with the monks said: “I attended Burma VJ the night before the march. Someone asked me if I would be marching the next day. What could be more important than showing a simple form of solidarity with a people who have been suffering for years? It was so powerful to march peacefully with the monks and other supporters.” (top) Supporters on Sampsonia Way (bottom) U Nayaka
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From Burma to Brentwood: Refugees Create a Sense of Community in Pittsburgh By Elizabeth Hoover
The BBC reports that the Burmese militaries are engaged in a campaign of terror against the Karen, an ethnic minority, and regularly attack their villages, burning them down and scattering the inhabitants. Those who don’t escape are either killed or forced into hard labor.
When Soe Naing’s youngest daughter Khin Mar Soe was born in 2001, he had “no dreams for her,” he recalled. She was born in a refugee camp in the Thailand-Burma border, one of an estimated 150,000 people living in nine camps after fleeing from the brutality of the Burmese government. The refugees inhabit a kind of political and economic no man’s land: they are unable to work, unable to move freely past the barbed wire fences that ring the camps, and—depending on the camp— unable to attend school. Now, Soe Naing (right) has another worry: saving enough for medical school tuition. That’s a long way off. Khin Mar Soe is only 6, but she dreams of being a doctor and is enjoying her new American school. She recently won a prize for reading the most books in her grade. She came to Pittsburgh with her parents and three older siblings two years ago as part of a resettlement program through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR.) Her family is part of a community of about 400 refugees from Burma living in Pittsburgh, mostly concentrated in the Troy Hill neighborhood and in the Prospect Park housing development in the suburb of Brentwood. On Monday nights, Grace Lutheran Church in Troy Hill hosts a Burmese community night where families gather to play games, get help translating mail, and collect donations from various organizations. Over the din of a raucous game of duck-duck-goose, Soe Naing explains that his children now want to be lawyers and engineers and that his 17-year-old son received a scholarship for college through The Pittsburgh Promise. When asked if he imagined his children would make it to college when they were still living in the camps, he could only laugh, eyes shining with pride. Since arriving in Pittsburgh, Soe Naing secured a job in housekeeping at a Marriott hotel and has been learning English through the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council. While his family seems to be thriving, refugees face innumerable Photos: Renee Rosensteel J U LY 2 0 1 0
challenges during resettlement, including navigating the language barrier, culture shock, and a lack of education. The majority of the refugees from Burma who have resettled in Pittsburgh are members of the Karen, a persecuted ethnic minority in Burma. The conflict between the Burmese government and the Karen is one of the world’s longest civil wars according to Jim Andrews of Irrawaddy magazine. The BBC reports that the Burmese militaries are engaged in a campaign of terror against the Karen and regularly attack their villages, burning them down and scattering the inhabitants. Those who don’t escape are either killed or forced into hard labor. The Karen National Union, a political group that advocates for the Karen, accuses the Burmese government of genocide. The conflict has created a protracted refugee situation; some Karen will live their entire lives in a refugee camp with no work, no school, and no hope for the future. Hler Paw, now 24, entered a refugee camp when he was 2. His father, a soldier who fought against the Burmese, was killed, and his mother is “somewhere in the border area.” He described life in the camp: “It’s like living in a human zoo.”
“In Burma [the Karen] don’t have a chance to study. They just flee here and there and hide from the soldiers who burn down the village, burn down the church, burn down the school.” HLER PAW (LEFT)
He applied for settlement in 2006 and landed in Pittsburgh in April 2007. Refugees arrive here with nothing—no passport, no money, very few belongings. One of two resettlement agencies—Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh or Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Pittsburgh—meet the refugees at the airport and provide them with a furnished apartment. These agencies also help the refugees apply for welfare, find English classes, look for work, and teach them some of the basics such as how to use the bus and shop at Walmart. “My first year here, I felt like I was floating in the air,” said Hler Paw. “Everything was weird.” Because Hler Paw came from a camp with a missionary
(right) Burmese girl at Grace Lutheran Church
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school, he already knew English and JFCS hired him to be a case manager working with his community. But his level of education is unusual for a refugee. “In Burma [the Karen] don’t have a chance to study. They just flee here and there and hide from the soldiers who burn down the village, burn down the church, burn down the school,” he said. Life on the run means many of the refugees aren’t literate even in their own language. That can make learning English doubly hard. “The biggest challenge is the language barrier,” said Elizabeth Heidenreich, a case manager with Pittsburgh Refugee Center. While the adults struggle to learn English, their younger children pick up the new language more easily because of daily ESL classes at school. “This changes the dynamic of the family,” Heidenreich said. “It puts pressure on a child to suddenly have to deal with adult things like medical questions while the parents go from being adults in charge to being someone who can’t communicate.” The children are forced to negotiate between school, where they are bullied for not being American enough, and home, where their parents are concerned about them losing their Karen or Burmese culture. “The kids are just trying to be kids,” Heidenreich added. Teachers unfamiliar with Karen and Burmese culture sometimes compound the problem, according to an after-school tutor. This tutor is an American who has spent time in Burma. She asked that her name not be used because she (left to right) Mi Cho finds some useful items among the hopes to return to Burma and said the governdonated clothing ment searches for the names of visa applicants on the Internet. She said her students here complained that their teachers call them by the wrong names, but the teacher simply didn’t realize that Burmese don’t use first and last names. Another student remembered being humiliated on her first day of school. She came in wearing thanaka, a white cosmetic paste made from ground bark. The teacher told her it looked “like bird poo” and made her scrub it off. Both adults and children live with the trauma of what they experienced in Burma. The after-school tutor said her students have heard horror stories of how the Burmese military would throw Karen babies into the air and use them as target practice. She says many of her students express a desire to return and fight the Burmese military.
The transition is just as hard for the adults. Unlike refugees who come from urban areas, most Karen were rice farmers, a life that Heidenreich described as “working really hard for two months and then waiting 10 months to work really hard for two months.” Or they have spent the past 10-15 years in a refugee camp, unable to work. They struggle with getting to their jobs on time and communicating with their bosses. Hler Paw agreed that the refugees have to adjust to the American work environment because Burma doesn’t have the same kind of industry. “Bosses love us when we start working,” he said. “We are really hard workers. Believe me.” The language barrier limits their access to certain higher-paid jobs and so they mainly work in jobs that don’t require communicating with the general public. These include housekeeping, dry cleaning, maintenance, and meatpacking. Grace Lutheran Church “They are working harder than they have ever worked and barely making it,” said Heidenreich. The language barrier can also have serious consequences for refugees who need medical attention. Wazo Myint, a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, has been working with public health issues in the Burmese community here through JFCS and the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, a program to support young professionals working in public health. “I worry Karen Vevers and a bilingual refugee work together about the refugees,” he said. “They are very vulnerato help a man understand forms that he must fill ble.” Wazo Myint was born in Burma and came to the out. (Far right) A tight-knit Burmese community. United Sates when he was 9 because his father got a job. He grew up in Hmawbi, a town close to where many of the refugees are from. “When my family came here, we struggled. But not to the same degree,” he explained. “It’s kind of a personal crusade for me to help the community.” Wazo Myint travels with people to doctors’ offices to translate, tries to connect refugees with resources, and helps them make appointments. Once he and another volunteer spent the night in the hospital with a woman who had just experienced a stillbirth. “We can’t solve all their problems,” he said, “but we can try to connect with the clients and reassure them.” While the resettlement agencies and other nonprofits try to provide resources to the Burmese community, there have been efforts within the community to create structures and organizations to become more self-sufficient. In Prospect J U LY 2 0 1 0
Park, there are four community leaders who mediate disputes and help people solve problems before contacting the resettlement agency. They also have an emergency contact system for people who can’t use 911 because they don’t speak English. “Our community is very close,” Hler Paw said. “We help each other.” Working together, the community has also been able to find ways to maintain cultural and religious practices. Burmese food is influenced by both Chinese and Indian cuisine, so many ingredients can be found at places like Lotus Food in the Strip District as well as local Indian grocery stores. Heidenreich remembered being offered a durian, a large exotic fruit with a strong odor, during a home visit. “I thought, where the heck do you get a durian in the middle of Pittsburgh, but they had it,” she said. Heidenreich has also attended several parties where the families gather to share food, play Karen music videos, and wear traditional dress. The majority of Karens are Christian and they meet in each others’ homes for prayer and Bible study. Because they have relationships with missionaries in Burma, Grace Lutheran Church and Discovery Christian Church have been able to provide Karen-language Bibles and hymnals for the community. They also offer the occasional Karen-language service, which requires bringing in a pastor from out of town. The Buddhist families have also organized and have recently started a monastery. Now it is just an apartment in Prospect Park with two monks, but they hope to construct their own building and create a school. Democracy is like a glass Anu Oo can’t remember a time when his family wasn’t persecuted by the Burmese military. He described how the military would take over his village’s rice paddies, accusing the farmers of feeding Karen rebels. Instead, they barely survived on rations until the militia forced them to “relocate.” That meant living in the jungle. When he was 11, he and his family made their way to a refugee camp, where he lived until being resettled in Pittsburgh in 2006. He immediately fell in love with Pittsburgh because the hills reminded him of the landscape in Burma. “Our country is ruled by dictators, unlike America, which is ruled by democracy,” he said through a translator. “In Burma, people are prisoners by their own government. I was excited to come to America.” Once in America, Anu Oo encountered many aspects of the American political landscape: capitalism, labor disputes, labor rights, and the freedoms of expression and association, among others. While working for a local steel
fabrication plant, he had his first experience with the American labor movement when the Three Rivers Coalition for Justice helped workers organize a strike there. In May of this year his name and the organization’s actions captured the attention of the Post-Gazette, who also quoted the plant president’s reaction to the strike. In an interview with Sampsonia Way, Anu Oo described how he has since participated in labor protests and traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify in front of the secretary of labor about the situation of refugees. He also talked about his meeting with representatives from Sen. Bob Casey’s office and the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Based on his experience of two extremes of the political spectrum— democracy in the United States and dictatorship in Burma—Anu Oo has defined democracy: “Democracy is like a glass. You can see through it—unlike in a dictatorship—but it is also easy to break.” Another refugee, who asked that his name not be used because he still has family in Burma, tried to break through the opacity of the Burmese dictatorship by clandestinely copying and distributing unsanctioned newspapers and publications. He came to Pittsburgh in 2007 as a political refugee after spending 20 months in a Malaysian prison. He was forced to flee Burma in 2002 after military intelligence officers found a political newspaper in his car. He said there are nine different ethnic groups from Burma in Pittsburgh and that the community is remarkably close-knit, setting aside the tensions that pitted ethnic groups against one another back in Burma. Unlike many of the refugees, he is college-educated, fluent in English, and from a city. He also owns his own home in Troy Hill, which he bought with the help of a personal loan from his employer, David Thomas, the owner of Breadworks, a bakery on the Northside. When Catholic Charities approached this refugee about working as a translator, he told them he was happy to help in any way, but wanted to make it volunteer. He is a presence at the community nights, acting as a translator, and collects donations for new families. “I want to help my people,” he said. “I don’t want to think, who is the Karen, who is the Burmese. No, we are all refugees. I am a refugee. They are refugees too.”
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endy Law-Yone 30
“Banishment from certain states is a form of salvation” By Silvia Duarte Wendy Law-Yone identifies herself as “half Burmese, a quarter Chinese, and a quarter English.” However, Burma, the country where she was born, is the common denominator of her three novels: The Coffin Tree (1983), Irrawaddy Tango (1993), and The Road to Wanting (2010). The daughter of a notable newspaper publisher who was imprisoned by the military regime during the sixties, Law-Yone was banished from her country and came to the United States in 1973, where she lived for more than 30 years. She speaks German, Burmese, and English, but the language of her novels is English. Her book reviews and articles have appeared in the Washington Post, Atlantic Monthly, and Time magazine, and she is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship, a Harvard Foundation award, and a David T.K. Wong Fellowship at the University of East Anglia in England. Although an American citizen, Law-Yone is now a permanent resident of the United Kingdom, where she answered this interview via email. Here, she discusses her new book, her exile, and her fear of returning to Burma. headlong journey from the village to the world, and the more sober, more halting, journey from the big world back to the lost village. To trace the provenance of a fictional character is to make a spurious sort of genealogical claim and the truthful answer to You know the old saying, “In order to under- your question is that I don’t really know stand the village, you first have to know the where Na Ga came from. world?” Well, for much of my early adult life I was hell-bent on escaping the ‘village’ of The difference is that Na Ga became Burma in order to know the wider world. another victim of the sex slave industry When you stop to think of the energy and in her trip from the village to the world. drive involved in acquiring this worldly How has prostitution affected Burmese women? knowledge, you wonder that you’re still alive. But it also strikes you at a certain point If official figures mean anything, something that in your endless quest to know the world, like 40,000 Burmese women work in the you have let go, or simply lost, your knowl- brothels of Thailand. Most of them are from edge of the village. I suppose the character of ethnic minorities. Most of them are underNa Ga came partly from that tension, that age. And more than half of them are infected Your new book The Road to Wanting tells the story of Na Ga, a young Burmese woman who fled Burma and suffers poverty, slavery, prostitution, and abandonment. Where did you get the idea for this character?
Photos of Law-Yone: Courtesy of Author
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with HIV. But the Thai brothels are only part of the story. The situation in Burma, the very ethos of the military regime, has led to the export of large numbers of Burmese women—again, mostly from the ethnic minorities—to service the sex trade not only in Thailand, but in China, in Japan, in Korea, in India, in Malaysia, and in Bangladesh. The Burma I grew up in was a conservative, even prudish society. Sex was not a subject one could speak about freely—let alone prostitution. How things have changed. In Rangoon—Yangon today—prostitutes work out of hotel/brothels, casinos, massage parlors, and restaurants that are fully or partly owned by the generals. Prostitution may be illegal, but it’s alive and kicking.
end they know what’s best for the objects of their interest and devotion. Will also threatens Na Ga with her biggest fear: go return to Burma. Is that also one of your biggest fears?
Yes, I associate going back to Burma with fear, ignorance, inhumanity, helplessness. To be trapped there, for whatever reason, is one of my worst nightmares. Another nightmare is not living long enough to see a time when it will be possible to go back in the right way.
You also point out a reality that is even less exposed than prostitution—the exotification of Asian women by the West. Will, an American with an interest in native peoples and their customs, discovers Na Ga. She lives as a lover, servant, and an exotic subject in Will’s Bangkok house, until his interest evaporates and he wants to send her back to Burma. What was the inspiration for the character of Will?
I have met many Wills, and in the most unlikely places. The Wills of the world seem to me to have traits of both The Quiet American and The Ugly American. (The first is the Graham Greene classic, set in Vietnam, and the second is the 1958 bestseller set in the fictional nation of Sarkhan, a combination of Burma and Thailand.) These Wills have a touching wide-eyed attitude they never seem to lose towards the cultures and peoples they discover and embrace. Along with a not-so-touching certainty that in the
One of the reviewers of The Road to Wanting said that, after all her suffering, “Na Ga is too calm and measured for her voice to sound especially authentic.” Do you think the reviewer’s comment is a misunderstanding of your culture?
I don’t know this review, so I don’t want to take the comment out of context. But I suspect if there is any misunderstanding, it isn’t one of anthropology so much as psychology. It depends too on what is meant by ‘authentic.’ The authentically damaged are often ‘calm and measured.’
In your Time article “The Outsider,” you wrote that the people you met when you temporarily returned to Burma made you feel “that exile was more a badge of honor than a state of banishment.” What exactly has exile meant for you?
Once upon a time, exile meant punishment through banishment—from a civilized center to a desolate wasteland: from Rome to Sarmatia; Peking to Tibet; St. Petersburg to Siberia. The Latin exilium means banish-
And while the burdens of exile are still the same, it has to be acknowledged that banishment from certain states is a form of salvation. The wretch in our time is often as much the one who stays as the one who has been forced to leave. This applies to writers too— especially for the privileges it brings—the wider experiences, the opportunities for selfexpression, the possibilities of reaching larger audiences. That’s how I’ve looked at my own career in exile, anyway. You wrote, “Buddhism is the official religion of Burma, and Buddhism, with its teachings on impermanence and the universality of human suffering, is thought to explain in large part the extraordinary tolerance of the Burmese. They have tolerated, above all, four decades of a government renowned for lying, cheating, stealing, torturing and murdering.” Does that mean that you see Buddhist teachings as one of the causes of the situation in Burma?
ment; and the melancholy of banishment can be sensed in words as various as the Old English wrecca (wretch, stranger, exile) and wreccan (to drive out, punish); in the German word elend (misery), in turn derived from the Old High German elilenti (sojourn in a foreign land, exile). But as I said in the Time article you mention, we live in an age when half of the world is on the move, on the run. It isn’t just intellectuals and other enemies of the state but whole populations that are ousted from their countries of origin.
No, that’s not what I meant. And your question has made me aware of the slipperiness of stock terms like ‘tolerance.’ What I meant by tolerance in the above instance was not so much a general permissiveness towards attitudes or behaviors that differ from one’s own. I meant by tolerance the capacity for endurance. And there is no doubt that this capacity is honed by the teachings of Buddhism. But it would be absurd to infer that Buddhist tolerance is one of the causes of Burma’s woes. It’s an effect, not a cause. Perhaps the sense I was reaching for is more in line with the medical definition of tolerance: ‘The ability of an organism to resist or survive infection by a parasitic or pathogenic organism.’
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How has fighting for democratic causes affected your writing?
I can’t claim to have fought for a single worthy cause, democratic or otherwise. I leave that to the hopeful and the brave. But don’t you feel that exposing Burma’s situation through your writing is a contribution to the democratic cause?
If I felt that, I would be writing in a very different way. I don’t think fiction has to (or ever manages to) promote a cause, except the cause of literature itself. Your father was a famous journalist who was in prison for 5 years. In what ways did your father’s imprisonment influence your understanding of the significance of language?
That may have been a big influence. But there were other influences that coincided with his imprisonment. Adolescence, for instance. The inevitable introspection of teenage years, coupled with the introspection forced upon a young mind by a tyrannical state. To try to make sense of a world that seemed senseless on so many fronts, I looked more closely at what words meant—in the books I read, but also in the heavily censored letters that we received from our imprisoned father. I learned the critical importance of reading between the lines. This led, I fear, to a lasting tendency to write between the lines. By that I mean an over-cautious approach to writing that makes the process even more difficult than it already is. Cover and mural details: Than Htay Maung’s mural on 324 Sampsonia Way. Photos: Elizabeth Hoover
How was the process of moving away from the Burmese language in order to write in English?
I only started writing in earnest after I left Burma, so Burmese was not my first literary tongue. Nor was English, for that matter. The first language in which I aspired to literature was German. I happened to take an intensive German language and literature course when I was seventeen. Enchanted by Goethe, Rilke, and Hölderlin, I began writing poetry in German. How I wish I could recover that naive (if utterly misplaced) brashness and self-confidence.
Is English your first language?
I’m not sure what my first language was, really. I grew up in a bi-lingual household, speaking Burmese to our domestic help and to my more conservative relatives. With my immediate family, I would say it was a patois of half-Burmese and half-English. My parents and older siblings were educated in the English system, but because I grew up in the post-independence period, when the nationalist spirit was high, all subjects in school were taught in Burmese, and English was just a second language in the curriculum. But, as I say, the first language in which I had my eyes opened to serious literature was neither Burmese nor English, but German. Did the fact that you and your family were Catholics affect you in some way?
Did it ever! When I first began to react to my Catholic upbringing—this was in my early teenage years—I was deeply resentful of the anguish and guilt it had inflicted on me as a child. But, later, I saw that those dreaded weekly confessions, those ‘examinations of conscience,’ prepared me for the introspection required to write novels. As a Burmese writer, what is your strong desire for the future?
Freedom. The many different kinds of freedom that have been denied the people of Burma. Freedom of thought and expression. Freedom of choice. Freedom of speech and action. A free press such as my father was lucky enough to represent—for a short while, anyway. A profusion—a profligacy— of affordable books for the multitudes of book-loving Burmese. J U LY 2 0 1 0
Published on Jul 25, 2010
Sampsonia Way is an online magazine sponsored by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh celebrating literary free expression and supporting persecuted po...