By Courtenay Forbes, Global Correspondent for Safe World
Zoya Phan is Campaigns Manager at Burma Campaign UK and is one of the leading Burmese democracy activists in Europe. Her autobiography will be published in April.
"Suddenly, I heard the explosion of mortar bombs and I immediately thought ‘Oh no, not again, not when I am studying for my exams..."
Burma is a country that has been in the consciousness of human rights activists for a long time; the military oppression and violence imposed on the Burmese by its despotic government has devastated the lives of thousands of its inhabitants.
Recently, however, the tide in this country has been seemingly changing; the new president Thein Sein’s release of some high-profile political prisoners has convinced much of the international community that Burma is now on the path to democracy, and an end to the suffering of the victims of violence at the hands of the government.
President Obama’s controversial visit to Burma last November, is viewed by some activists as endorsing the Burmese government. Despite the progress that appears to be happening in Burma, the cultural prejudice and extreme violence suffered by ethnic minorities in the country is far from solved. There are thousands of Burmese ethnic minorities who are still displaced in refugee camps, with an uncertain future. Activists around the world are working tirelessly to raise awareness of the issues still relevant to Burma’s present and future. It is so important that a few events with high media coverage, such as President Obama’s visit, do not suffice to quell the concern of the international community.
One woman who understands the importance of keeping international focus firmly in Burma is Zoya Phan, who works for Burma Campaign UK (BCUK).
A member of the Karen ethnic tribe, Zoya grew up in Burma under constant threat of violence from the government’s army, and was forced to leave the country with her family to live in a Thai refugee camp. Now based in the UK, Zoya participates in various kinds of activism and campaigning to help the situation in her home country which faces the same problems it did when she was a child.
I was fortunate enough to interview Zoya, and get an insider opinion in the situation in Burma and how the aware-raising of groups such as Safeworld is key to creating international pressure.
Being part of the Karen Burmese, Zoya was born into a marginalised part of society. When she was fourteen, her home was attacked and her family were forced to leave. Talking about growing up in such an environment, Zoya says:
“Although my parents did explain to us about the situation of our people, I knew very little of what was going on in other parts of Burma and the suffering of other ethnic minorities.”
I asked Zoya how she thinks her experience of Burma as a Karen differs from other Burmese people, and how significant these ethnic divisions are:
“We have our own culture, history, language and literature, which are different from other people in Burma. In terms of personal experience growing up in a country ruled by military dictatorship, it is no different from other ordinary citizens of Burma.”
The widespread oppression suffered by all sorts of Burmese inhabitants caused equally far-reaching devastation. Zoya told me about the attacks on her home:
“Twice, I was forced to flee from my home because of the attacks by the Burmese Army. The first time was when I was fourteen, where we were attacked with air strikes and mortar bombs. It was so terrifying. We had no choice but to run for our lives, leaving everything behind.
The second attack was when I was studying for my final exams. Suddenly, I heard the explosion of mortar bombs and I immediately thought ‘Oh no, not again, not when I am studying for my exams’. We had to leave everything behind and run for our lives. I was lucky, I escaped and ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand.”
The living conditions of the Thai refugee camps are seldom covered in international press. Life here for thousands of Burmese brought its’ own difficulties:
“Even in the refugee camps, it wasn’t safe for us. We were still being attacked and houses were burnt down. We survived with basic humanitarian supplies from NGOs. We were not allowed to leave the camps and it was more like a prison camp. We became stateless people without any ID or passport. We lost hope.”
Unlike many less fortunate refugees, however, Zoya was given the opportunity to escape from her situation:
“I was very lucky, I received a scholarship first to study in Bangkok and then in the UK. It was a big opportunity as well as enormous challenge. I was very scared to be leaving my family and my community.”
Arriving in the UK signalled a very different life for Zoya to her Burmese upbringing;
“I grew up in a small community where everyone in the village knew each other. Life was very natural. As children, we played in the river, in the forest. I miss the culture, food, rivers, mountains and friends. We were quite poor, I didn’t have any toys when I was little.”
"It was upon embarking upon her new life in Britain, however, that started her career as a human rights campaigner; “It might sound strange, but only when I arrived in the UK, I found out more information about the situation in my home country. I was shocked to learn that many political activists, journalists, and aid relief workers were imprisoned by the Burmese government. I was astonished to find out that it’s not only my people who have been attacked by the central government.
"I also found out that, from the UK, I can do something to help my people by campaigning for international pressures against the government in Burma to force them into reform.
"The first campaign that I involved in was for increased humanitarian aid. At the end of 2005 and early 2006, the Burmese Army launched a major military offensive in my homeland, Karen State in the eastern part of Burma. Tens of thousands of people were forced to flee as the government’s troops targeted civilians in the attacks.
Civilians were slaughtered, women were raped, men were used as slave labour for the Burmese Army, houses were burnt down, food was destroyed, and lands were confiscated. It was so impossible for villagers to survive. They faced the worst humanitarian crisis and many became refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs).
Children died just because of the lack of food and medicine. It was upsetting for me as this was the same army that attacked my village. We campaigned for the British government to increase humanitarian aid in Burma and also for the cross-border assistance for those hiding in the jungle, because the Burmese government block aid in ethnic areas.”
Zoya’s ultimate destiny, however, was to be with BCUK:
“On 19 June 2005, I took part in my first demonstration in front of the 10 Downing Street and the Burmese embassy in London, to mark the 60th Birthday of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a leader of Burma’s democracy movement. I was master of ceremony, leading the protest. A director of Burma Campaign UK approached me and asked me to join the campaign team as a volunteer. I agreed, and once I finished my study at the University of East Anglia, I joined Burma Campaign UK as a full time volunteer.”
For Zoya, activism and campaigning can have a significant impact on the awareness of Burmese problems:
“Indirectly, it raises awareness about the human rights abuses taking place in Burma, the struggle for freedom, peace, equality and a federal democratic Burma that will guarantee rights and protection for ethnic minorities. It also adds to international support and sympathy for ethnic struggle. The increased of British aid to Burma resulted in positive impact on the lives of millions of people in Burma including ethnic minorities.”
The increased enthusiasm for such work is especially important at a time when world leaders seem to be releasing pressure on the Burmese government:
“First, without international pressure, which is one of the direct results of activism, I doubt that the government in Burma would be willing to commit to any reform. For this, we are grateful to everyone who supports our work. Second, the current reforms in Burma are only half measure, top down and skin deep. We still have a long way to go to reach our goal of genuine peace, freedom and the establishment of a federal democratic Burma.
There are still hundreds of political prisoners in Burma, the repressive laws remain in place, ethnic people are still denied their equal rights, conflict has increased, the human rights situation is getting worse and the humanitarian crisis is greater than before. The number of IDPs has tripled since Thein Sein became the President. And most of all, people in Burma still need international support.”
Recently, the Burmese government has announced that it is repatriating some of its refugees. I asked Zoya for her opinion on this, having been once in this position herself:
“Refugees and IDPs want to go home. But the issues of safety and security remain a great concern. Any repatriation of refugees back to Burma should be a volunteer return, in full consultation with refugees themselves and civil society organisations that work for the refugees. Pre-conditions of safety and security should be in place.”
According to BCUK, “The issues concerning the return of IDPs and refugees include; the enforcement of a nationwide ceasefire, a political settlement that guarantees genuine peace, landmine clearance, the withdrawal of the Burmese Army’s troops, the establishment of the rule of law, the policy of land ownership, the repealing of all repressive laws that affect refugees and ethnic community, and the establishment of social welfare including healthcare and education.”
On the positive changes the new government has implemented, Zoya says:
“There have been ceasefire agreements with some ethnic armed groups. While the ceasefire is welcome, the issue of political settlement remain unsolved, as the government is not interested in political negotiation, but only economic development.
Having a ceasefire alone without political settlement is like pressing a pause button, not a stop button. A political solution is key to conflict resolution and will guarantee genuine peace for ethnic people. I hope this ceasefire is the first step towards a political solution.”
On the dangerous assumption of the international community of peace in Burma, exacerbated by Obama’s visit, Zoya comments:
“The visit of President Obama to Burma was too big a reward, too premature and too fast for the military-backed government who does not deserve it. Under this new government, human rights situation is getting worse. For ethnic people there is very little hope for their struggle for self-determination and autonomy. More dangerously, these rewards undermine further reforms in Burma.
“Hundreds of political prisoners remain in jail, extrajudicial killing of ethnic civilians, sexual violence against ethnic women and children including rape and gang rape, forced displacement, land confiscation, widespread use of forced labour, the systematic destruction of villages and food, the use of children in the Burmese Army and the denial of humanitarian aid by the Burmese government. In the attacks, the Burmese army targets civilians. These human rights violations are very serious that amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The UN special reporter on human rights in Burma has called for the UN to establish a commission of inquiry to investigate these crimes. Sadly, there is very little awareness about the situation of Burma’s ethnic minorities. Even when there is a little awareness, the international community turns a blind eye on the abuses and prioritise trade in their decision-making.
“Ethnic people want a real peace and they have compromised from demanding independence to a federal union. Ethnic political organisations have always tried to negotiate for a political settlement. Unlike ethnic minorities, the Burmese government refuses to negotiate, continues to use military force against ethnic civilians, demands a complete surrender from ethnic armed political groups and offers economic development in return. Most ethnic groups stand firm on their political principles with a strong belief that only through political autonomy, it will guarantee their rights and protection.”
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a member of the Burmese democratic movement who has been under house arrest since 1989, was released in 2010. This action created hope for the start of a free Burma. As is often the case with these high-profile cases, however, the real situation in Burma still paints a different story:
“The release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is very welcome, but hasn’t yet signified freedom for all in Burma. It’s time the international community, especially governments and decision makers, look beyond Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to see women who have to watch their children die because of no medicine, political activist who have been tortured in jail, those children who have been forced to join the Burmese Army and for those tens of thousands of civilians hiding in the jungle.
"There have been some civil liberties and political space in central Burma, although Burma has a long way to go. However, for ethnic people there is very little hope as they are left behind in the political, social and economic progress.”
Another story covered in international press was Thein Sein’s significant releasing of certain political prisoners:
“As the same as other Burma’s dictators in the past, Thein Sein has been using the rerelease of political prisoners as a bargaining chip since he has been in power. He was hoping to get international pressure relaxed. It is a great disappointment that the conditional release of some high profile political prisoners was enough for the UK, USA and other governments to justify lifting sanctions on Burma.”
Another Burmese minority, the Muslim Rohingya, have suffered at the hands of the situation in Burma. BCUK has come under the spotlight for supporting Rohingya refugees. Zoya says of the situation:
“Burma Campaign UK is a human rights organisation, working to promote human rights, democracy and development for all the people in Burma. Among many campaign activities, we also called for the 1982 Citizenship Law to be repealed. This law is not compatible with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and underpins much of the persecution faced by the Rohingya. It arbitrarily excluded many people in Burma of the right to citizenship, including the Rohingya. We also call for an end to violations against the Rohingyas and other ethnic minorities, and for their safety and protection.
"Burma is a very diverse society that requires a great level of tolerance and understanding for there to be a lasting peace. Like other ethnic minorities, the Rohingyas have been facing severe human rights violations by the central government, including religious persecution, killings, mass scale arrest, torture, rape, movement restriction, marriage restriction, forced labour. The international community should pressure the Burmese government to end these abuses.”
President Obama raised the issue of the need for tolerance and understanding during his visit to Burma:
“I appreciate that President Obama also spoke about the need for tolerance and national reconciliation. I hope this helps contribute to a positive attitude towards the Rohingyas and other ethnic minorities in Burma.”
Ultimately, Zoya and other at BCUK are optimistic that theirs and others’ work can contribute towards a brighter future for her home country:
“Regardless of our race, ethnicity, religion, gender, political and economic background, everyone should be treated with dignity and human rights. I would like to see a federal democratic Burma where everyone has equal rights and opportunity. I would like to see ethnic minorities being able to practice their culture, speak their language and learn their history freely. I believe diversity is something to celebrate, not to crush as the government in Burma does.
I would like to see the next generation grow up without fear.”
Answering my question on whether Zoya thinks she will stay living in the UK:
“I would like to go home. When, the situation is better and it’s safe for me to return to Burma, I would like to go and see my parents’ village in Irrawaddy Delta. I would like to build a library in my parents’ home village in their memory.
My mother died in 2004 and my father was assassinated by an agent of the Burmese government in 2008.
My sister, brothers and I set up the Phan Foundation in memory of our parents with the aims to alleviate poverty, provide education, promote human rights, and protect Karen culture. Based on my personal experience, I believe that education is key to development and for young people to fulfil their potential.”
Zoya Phan is Campaigns Manager at Burma Campaign UK and is one of the leading Burmese democracy activists in Europe. Her autobiography, the gripping tale of her life, will be published in April.