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Smiles Hide the Pain For Pillaged Burmese

Originally appeared in Cairns Media Magazine

March 15, 2010

By Jay Scott Kanes

Despite relentless mistreatment of Burma’s people by its military regime, the country’s long-detained democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, remains famous for her charming smile, soft voice and instinctive human decency.

By no coincidence, Khin Ohmar, a human-rights campaigner who left Burma and works to help her long-suffering fellow citizens from across the border in Mae Sot, Thailand, also smiles widely and speaks softly, even when discussing the injustice of murders, rapes, blatant corruption and forced labor back home.

“Burmese people do smile a lot,” said Ohmar, co-ordinator of the Burma Partnership, when on a recent trip to Hong Kong. “It’s the one way for us to cope with what’s happening.

“The army kills people without reason, and barbarian actions have no consequences in law, so I’d say that Burma has the region’s most repressive regime and one of the world’s worst,” Ohmar said. Dozens of her friends, fellow democracy campaigners, are serving long sentences (up to 65 years) in Burmese jails. “It’s really outrageous.”

Aren’t tears a more logical reaction? Surely, the situation deserves a flood of tears. At this suggestion, Ohmar’s smile tightened and faded. She nodded. “Yes, but I try not to do that,” she said. “From time to time, it just happens. There’s nothing I can do to avoid it.”

Then her smile returned in full force. “Even with all my years of advocacy work, sometimes it’s difficult for me, and I have trouble to stay focused,” she said. “But I’m able to cope.

“Necessity keeps us going. This is about who we are and what happens to us. We’re in a righteous fight and must continue. Despite the injustice, I need to be able to speak in a sensible way, to tell the world what’s happening without exaggerating. That’s my responsibility.

“Sometimes the darkest moments come just before you see light at the end of the tunnel, and maybe that’s where we are now. Better days will come. I don’t know when, but we have to keep moving so that future generations won’t live in the same darkness.”

Hosted by the Hong Kong Coalition for a Free Burma (HKCFB), Ohmar joined a protest at the Burmese consulate and then spoke in quick succession at a press conference, a round-table discussion, a street forum and a public seminar. Sometimes she accepts half-a-dozen speaking engagements per day.

Burma Partnership, established at a 2006 regional conference in Chiang Mai, Thailand, aims to build bridges between people in Burma and their sympathizers elsewhere. It envisions “a free and democratic Burma that upholds the principles of human rights, equality and justice”.

Largely due to political repression, more than 90 per cent of Burma’s people live in poverty. Worse, they “suffer in the extreme” from violence and “human-rights atrocities” inflicted by the military government. “As Burmese, we know how the military government controls us using fear, intimidation and our need for daily survival,” Ohmar said.

“Soldiers at the bottom of the military regime are in bad shape too. But those at the top become very rich.” Military leaders harvest wealth by selling Burma’s natural resources, like oil, gas, jade and teak.

Ohmar urges the international community to refuse recognition to the results of a “national election” planned for this year unless the regime makes it credible: “The military government must release all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and allow them to participate freely. Military operations against ethnic and pro-democracy groups must stop. And there must be an inclusive dialogue among stakeholders, including the pro-democracy movement and ethnic nationalities.

“Otherwise, the voting merely creates an electoral façade for military rule to continue behind the mask of a so-called civilian government. How can an election be credible when leaders of the major opposition political parties and ethnic groups are in prison, under house arrest or under military attack?”

Ohmar doubts if the junta will satisfy any basic political standard or human rights. “The public sentiment about the election is that nothing will change in people’s daily lives.”

The Burmese government reserves 25 per cent of the elected positions for the military. Making opposition participation nearly impossible hands the other 75 per cent to military cohorts “without uniforms”.

Ohmar assailed Burma’s new constitution as drafted in secrecy and adopted in a coerced referendum. “It places the military above the law and gives blanket immunity for the regime’s past, present and future human-rights violations,” she said. “With the coming election, Burma will become not a democracy, but a mafia state. Past problems will persist — poverty, tensions, ethnic discrimination, forced labor and more human-rights abuses — but hidden behind a puppet government.”

The Burmese regime holds more than 2,100 political prisoners, many for demonstrating peacefully or exercising free speech. Grim prison conditions leave many of them with serious illnesses.

Ohmar urges Hong Kong companies investing in Burma to join in urging the military government to improve human rights, release political prisoners and end crimes against humanity. Unless such investors “show morality and integrity” by pressuring the military government, “they should leave Burma” and dismiss it as a place “unfit for international business”.

Past public protests in Burma, the most recent big one led by Buddhist monks in 2007, resulted in brutal military crackdowns and blood on the streets. But the corrupt and thuggish rulers still can’t relax.

“The top guys benefit so much by sticking together,” Ohmar said. “But they also compete with each other and always fear being stabbed in the back.

“In the Burma Democracy Movement, we have friends all over the world,” Ohmar said. “The most important thing that’s missing is firm action by the international community.”

China and Russia tend to veto United Nations action against Burma while selling weapons to the military regime. Ultimately, “no one internationally will help us,” Ohmar said. “It all depends on people in the country. We need to stay focused and continue to prepare, strive and work for change. When the time comes, we must grab, all together, at the chance.

“We’re waiting to see who leads us next time. But as Aung San Suu Kyi always told us, ‘You don’t wait for a leader. You lead yourselves.’ That’s why it’s best to train the people to stand up for their rights. If there’s a spark or some momentum we can gain, I’m sure the people of Burma will rise up again.”

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