Mon 21 Nov 2005
Filed under: International,News
When Burmese democratic activist Naw Htoo Paw spent her first day with Defence Minister Phil Goff , she was astonished that he drove her to electorate functions himself.
“In Burma when the Defence Minister goes out there will be a lot of security guards and there will be at least 10 cars that guard the minister,” she said.
“Not here. It was only one car, and the people just talked to him, they are very friendly. In Burma I never saw the Government treat the people very friendly.”
Naw Htoo Paw, 23, will spend the next three months in Mr Goff’s Mt Roskill electorate office on a “democratic internship” preparing for the day, which she hopes will come in her lifetime, when Burma will become a democracy.
She and a colleague Mwe Lon, who will do her internship with Council of Trade Unions president Ross Wilson in Wellington, are among 16 democratic activists at a foreign affairs training school funded by the Dutch Government for Burmese exiles in Thailand. The other 14 students have gone as interns to other democratic countries.
Burma has had a military regime since 1962 and Naw Htoo Paw has never seen a Member of Parliament in action before.
“Here you can see that the MP is trying to help their constituents, trying to solve their problems,” she said. “In Burma, the people have to serve the Government.”
Although she has never seen an MP before, she has seen the Burmese military at close quarters. She grew up in a village in Karen State, which borders Thailand, where the military has had constant skirmishes with the rebel Karen National Union (KNU) army for decades.
“Whenever the Government troops come, they force the people to carry their ammunition and their rice bags,” she said.
“The women also were raped, so whenever they enter the village they will accuse the villagers of having communication with the KNU, so we have to be afraid all the time.”
When she was about 12, Government troops accused a man in the village of supporting the KNU, and ordered all the villagers to gather in a circle.
“They tortured him and then forced him to dig a hole that he would be buried in. Finally they cut his throat,” she says.
“I saw that. Not only me, the other children also saw that because we were forced to come and see.”
A few years later, when she was away at high school, the houses of her parents and three other families were burned by soldiers of another group supporting the Government.
“They asked for money, and when the people told them we don’t have anything to give, they just got angry and burnt down the houses.
“We built another small house with bamboo. Our original house was made of wood, but after they burned down the house we couldn’t afford to rebuild with wood.”
When she finished school, Naw Htoo Paw and her older sister were taken by their mother on a dangerous three-day walk through the jungle to safety in Thailand, using a guide to avoid soldiers and landmines. Their mother then returned to their village, leaving the two girls with Burmese activist groups on the border.
Naw Htoo Paw joined the Karen Women’s Organisation and will return to it when she goes back to Thailand at the end of January.
She will speak at a public meeting at St Benedict’s Church in Auckland on Monday and hopes that New Zealand will help to pressure the Burmese military to restore democracy.
“The people here can write letters to their MP to raise the issue of Burma in Parliament and get help to the internally displaced people or the refugees,” she said.
Mr Goff said he hoped Naw Htoo Paw’s New Zealand experience would be useful when the military regime eventually ended.
“It’s very hard to say how long that might take,” he said.
“The junta seems to be fairly inflexible. But the critical thing is that, at the point when the military dictatorship comes to an end, that you have a corps of people who are able and willing to start fulfilling the functions that are required in a democratic nation.”