Fri 2 Sep 2005
Filed under: International,News
September 1: Burmese protestors travel along Route 130 in their month long march from Washington, D.C. to New York City.
While people went about their daily lives Monday, a small group of strangers walked quietly into town along Route 130, largely unnoticed except for some passers-by who looked curiously at their signs and moved on.
Most come from Burma, a place not many are familiar with and even fewer can point out on a map. And though their arrival was unobtrusive and their message is one of optimism and peace, what brought them through Washington is nothing less than horrifying.
The walkers are taking part in the second Long March and Hunger Strike for Freedom, a month long trek from Washington, D.C., to the United Nations in New York City. The 10 marchers are not united under any organized group, but come together from across the country, sometimes picking up like-minded people along the way.
They walk about 10 miles each day, stopping every fourth day to rest. Resting each night at churches or community halls, the group talks with locals about Burma and shares stories, which range from dangerous escapes over the Thai border to brutal treatment at the hands of the Burmese military. Passing through Maryland, Delaware and southern New Jersey already, the Long March came to Windsor United Methodist Church on Monday.
Their aim is simple – get people to pay attention. Get them to understand how the political strife in their native Burma, a southeastern Asian country also known as Myanmar nestled between India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand, has created a torturous life for millions of people. Get people educated about Burma’s ghastly past and how even ordinary citizens can find themselves forced into labor camps, maimed by military forces or even killed.
And above all, get people involved in the campaign for Burmese democracy.
“We are trying to make the American public aware. We need awareness and attention. We need help,” 38-year-old marcher Phone Kyaw said Monday, who escaped Burma as citizen uprisings turned increasingly deadly. Phone Kyaw (the Burmese do not use family names) was granted refugee status by the United Nations and came to the United States in 2000.
Like his fellow marchers, Phone Kyaw left Burma to avoid jail, torture and possibly death. After an army coup in 1962, Burma was ruled by a military-dominated regime. Citizen protests were frequent, but often ended in bloodshed. Then on Aug. 8, 1988, amid food shortages and discontent, students, monks, workers and even sympathetic soldiers and police officers began demonstrations. Soldiers attacked the unarmed demonstrators, killing thousands and injuring many more.
The violence continued until Sept. 18 when another military coup gave power to State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which changed the country’s name to Myanmar and continued suppressing demonstrators, often with the aid of machine guns. Historians estimate that more than 10,000 people were killed and thousands more jailed and tortured in the following months.
SLORC promised free elections, but when Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition party, proved too popular she was placed under house arrest. Named a Nobel Peace Laureate in 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest three times since 1989. Her story is a rallying point for the marchers, who are demanding her release, freedom for all political prisoners, free and fair elections and an end to violence in Burma.
Help from the United Nations has been promised, but not delivered, Phone Kyaw explained. The walkers hope the Long March will force U.N. delegates to pay attention to the Burmese situation and take meaningful action, he said.
“We want them to do something effective. There is political deadlock and we need them to work as a mediator (and) intervene in some way,” he said. “Last year we marched and then waited a year. The United Nations did nothing. We do not see anything positive with the situation in Burma. Things are getting worse.”
This year the group is hoping the U.N. delegates pay more attention. Their walk is steeped in symbolism. They left Washington, D.C., from the Mahatma Gandhi statue on Aug. 8, both to commemorate the uprising and to drive home a message of peace and nonviolence. Once in New York City, the march’s main organizer, 54-year-old Han Lin, and Maung Maung Tate, 51, will embark on a 17-day hunger strike – one day for every year since the military coup.
“I will not give up. I will eat nothing, only water. No energizers, no food. I will refuse any medical attention and food even if I am taken away to a hospital,” Han Lin said through a translator.
Han Lin is desperate for the delegates and ordinary citizens to hear – and more importantly, believe – stories about Burma. His group is traveling with photographs they say prove the Burmese plight. Perhaps best summed up by a caption on one poster, “Life is not a struggle but a hell,” the pictures show unimaginable suffering. Children are detained in labor camps and whipped, bodies are mutilated, burnt and left on the street. One picture shows a monk shot dead during a demonstration; another, a dead political prisoner’s body ripped apart and left to rot. He was used as a land mine sweeper, marchers say.
The marchers hope their personal stories will make an even bigger impact. Included in the group is Nyunt Nyunt, a 60-year-old refugee. She was traveling in a convoy with Aung San Suu Kyi and hundreds of others on May 30, 2003, when the military attacked in what is known as Depayin Massacre.
“She is a witness and survivor. In her own eyes, she saw more than 70 people killed. All the people traveling in her bus were killed but her,” Phone Kyaw said of Nyunt Nyunt, who was beaten with bamboo sticks during the melee.
Nyunt Nyunt was forced to go into hiding without medical attention for her severe injuries. Reporters covertly traveled to her hiding place to interview her, but Burmese military intelligence soon closed in. At the behest of her husband, Nyunt Nyunt escaped Burma last year over the Thai border, leaving her family behind. She was granted refugee status and came to America, where she speaks very little English but is active in Burmese causes. Participating in the Long March is, Phone Kyaw said, a way for her to support her native country and share firsthand accounts of the inhumanity there.
Disturbing though their pasts may be, why did the walkers decided to bring the Long March to local towns like Bordentown, Washington and Dayton? Logistics, for one. The group has a tentative schedule, but must make regular adjustments to find places to stay. Lucky for them, the Windsor United Methodist Church on Church Street was only too willing to help. The group called Saturday and after consulting with parishioners and reading up on Burma, Pastor Eric Helms and the church welcomed the group. A handful put together a potluck dinner and dined with the marchers Monday.
But the group’s main reason for stopping in average towns along their route is to teach ordinary people about Burma and what they can do to help. That is partially why Mr. Helms backed the group’s stay at his church.
“It actually fit in very well with Sunday’s sermon even though it was written before we got the call,” he said. “The sermon was on Exodus 3 when Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt. God explains how he heard their cries for help. As Christians, we should also listen and help people become free.”
Han Lin hopes more people follow the church’s example.
“We will not stop until we get action. If nothing is done again, we march again next year and have an 18-day hunger strike,” he said. “We will keep the movement going. We are doing what we should.”