So I’m now back in USCB’s DC office after 3 weeks away on the Thai-Burma border. After taking around the amazing group of American and Australian activists, I stuck around the border for an extra and spent the time talking with a diverse group of Burmese about their thoughts on what is happening right now. I left the border a year ago after living there for two years, and it was interesting to see what has changed and what has stayed the same.
I talked with a lot of youth from many different ethnic groups and regions of Burma. They are the ones doing some of the most innovative, effective activities inside the country, but receive little international attention. Even though they are in Thailand, most go back and forth to their communities in Burma regularly, and the organizations stay strongly connected with their areas. Hearing their thoughts is so important, because they know really well the reality of day to day life.
One of the most powerful moments for me was when I was in a refugee camp and was brought to several classrooms of high schoolers. They brought me to the front of the classroom and I talked about the work of US Campaign for Burma, and then asked questions about them – where are they from, how many years they have been in the camp.
“How many of you came here because your family was afraid of the Burma Army?”
Slowly they started raising their hands, until about 80% of the class had their hand raised.
“How many of you are still afraid of attacks by the Burma Army?”
They kept their hands up.
In several classrooms I asked this, and the response was the same.
I spent a lot of time with youth activists from Kachin state. Many of them had just come back from going to the IDP camps and other areas inside. They told me heartbreaking stories from the conflict areas – of pregnant women dying, children freezing, their relatives losing homes. I asked one of them how she felt when she heard the international community say that Burma is changing, she clenched her fists and said “ooh it makes me soo angry.”
I talked with some friends who have gone back to Rangoon, and they were more optimistic about changes in Burma. Others who had recently been to Rangoon and other cities in central Burma talked about how the climate of fear is lifting a bit. Of course it still exists though – most people we met with on the trip did not want their photo or name to be published for fear of what might happen.
For lots of youth I talked to, things hadn’t changed at all for their communities inside. Development projects such as dams, ports, and pipelines were the reason people’s land was being confiscated and many people can’t make a living. People have no say over what happens with their land. The education system in Burma is still a broken mess, full of corruption and little resources, and so Burma’s youth either have to leave the country or stay in the land of little opportunities.
I was there on the border when political prisoners were released and it was a time of much excitement as people phoned newly released friends. The excitement was tainted though with worries about those still in prison, as well as the conditions with which the prisoners were released. I talked with a monk friend on the day of the release. He was beaming from ear to ear, so thrilled that some of his colleagues were out of prison. However,”There are still many problems, not much has changed” he told me, “We still do not have the freedom to preach freely and do our work. We have to keep on fighting.”
Resistance is truly alive in Burma. Even if people aren’t visibly marching in the streets, in every part of Burma there are people and organizations working to educate, activate, and coordinate. There were a lot of sobering things about this trip, but it was also rewarding and energizing to meet with so many people giving everything to help their peoples.