Teachers in Burma face daily struggle for democracy
Despite the release from house arrest of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kii and the considerable progress made by the government in Burma towards democracy, major problems still exist in the country.
In 2012 NASUWT sent a delegation to Burma, led by NASUWT activist Tony Stokle who regularly blogs from the south-east asian country. Follow the tweets on the right-hand side from Burma Campaign UK and use the World Teachers' Day Lesson Resources produced by the Union to find out more information.
Every day members of Burma’s ethnic minorities deal with the very real threat of being forced into slave labour, murdered or raped.
Meanwhile, government forces and armed groups continue to carry out violence without any risk of being held to account.
Following an update in 2008, Burma’s constitution outlaws freedom of speech and assembly, legalises enforced labour and essentially protects government officials from prosecution for violating human rights - closing the door to justice for victims.
So while brave individuals who stand up and call for reform are often arrested without warrant and held incommunicado, those who commit human rights abuses are unlikely to ever face imprisonment. Help hold these criminals to account
The Burmese authorities have shown themselves unwilling to investigate crimes against humanity. It is time for the international community to take a stand. We have joined the call for a UN Commission of Inquiry into human rights violations in Burma. Please add your voice to ours.
Aung San Suu Kyi to give Reith Lectures
Aung San Suu Kyi will be giving two of the 2011 Reith Lectures on the subject of Securing Freedom. Her lectures, which were recorded in Burma and smuggled out of the country, focus on the struggle for freedom and democracy the meaning of freedom and dissent and the responsibility of the international community.
The seminal lectures will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and on the BBC World Service. The first lecture on dissent will be broadcast on Radio 4 on Saturday July 2 at 22.15 and the second, on Liberty will be broadcast on Tuesday 5 July at 9am. It will also be repeated on Saturday 9 July 22.15.
The lectures will be repeated on the World Service at a later date.
Dictatorship breaks ceasefire in Kachin State
The dictatorship has broken another ceasefire in Kachin State, attacking soldiers of the Kachin Independence Army, which has been on ceasefire since 1994, according to Burma Campaign UK
In November last year the Burmese Army attacked part of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army and they broke a ceasefire with part of the Shan State Army North in March this year.
Burmese Army soldiers have targeted civilians since breaking these ceasefires, mortar bombing villagers, shooting civilians, raping women, using forced labour, and looting.
The Kachin Women’s Association Thailand has reported that at least eighteen women and girls were gang-raped between June 10-18, 2011 during Burma Army advances along the China-Burma border. Four of these women were killed after being raped.
There are fears that if the Burmese Army continues attacks in Kachin State, there is likely to be a major escalation of abuses committed by the military.
Resistance fighters released from Indian jail
A group of 34 resistance fighters have been released after languishing in an Indian prison for more than 13 years despite never having committed a crime.
According to Burma Campaign UK, the group were detained after apparently being tricked by Indian military intelligence, who told them they could land on an island with the permission of the Indian military.
The group never intentionally broke international law as they believed they had the backing of the Indian authorities.
They come from two ethnic nationalities in Burma, the Arakanese and Karen, which face persecution from the dictatorship ruling Burma.
Campaigners are making sure they are guaranteed safety and support, and that they will not be deported back to Burma.
Daily plight faced by cyclone survivors
Six months after Cyclone Giri, survivors are still struggling to get through each day.
The tropical storm devastated swathes of Arakan State in Western Burma last October, causing the destruction of some 20,000 homes affecting more than 260,000 people.
But still there are thousands who are struggling in inadequate shelter and finding it almost impossible to make ends meet.
In an interview with The Irrawaddy magazine one villager from Pyaychaung, in Myebon Township, one of the worst-affected villages, said: “We eat whatever we can get and do random jobs everyday for our survival.
"When heavy rain falls, we gather at a house that is still in relatively good condition. But at the moment, only five of the 230 houses in our village are in good shape.”
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), an estimated 104,000 people are still living with host families in the worst-affected townships. Up to 90% of all rice fields have been damaged in Myebon and people are struggling to rebuild their livelihoods.
On 7 November Burma’s dictatorship held its sham elections. It was clear what the result would be before a single vote had been cast.
The dictatorship’s election laws prevented Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy from taking part. Severe restrictions on parties and candidates prevented any real campaigning and there were widespread allegations of voter intimidation and bribery during the election.
But even if the elections had been free and fair, it still wouldn’t have made a difference because the new constitution is designed to maintain dictatorship.
For more details:
Aung San Suu Kyi released
Burma Campaign UK welcomed the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, but warned that the release should not be interpreted as a sign that democratic reform is on the way. Burma Campaign UK also called for the immediate release of 2,202 political prisoners who remain in detention.
“The release of Aung San Suu Kyi is about public relations, not democratic reform,” said Zoya Phan, International Coordinator at Burma Campaign UK. “I am thrilled to see our democracy leader free at last, but the release is not part of any political process, instead it is designed to get positive publicity for the dictatorship after the blatant rigging of elections on 7th November. We must not forget the thousands of other political prisoners still suffering in Burma’s jails.”
It is the third time Aung San Suu Kyi has been released from house arrest. The last time she was released, in 2002, it was part of a UN-led initiative to try to persuade Burma’s dictatorship to enter into dialogue leading to a transition to democracy. However, when the time came for substantive discussions the dictatorship refused to continue the dialogue. At the current time there is no such UN effort. The focus of the international community has instead been on a failed effort to ensure elections were free and fair.
The international community should use the release of Aung San Suu Kyi as an opportunity to apply pressure on the dictatorship to enter into genuine dialogue.
For many years the United Nations Security Council, United Nations General Assembly, United Nations Human Rights Council, United Nations Secretary General, European Union, ASEAN, USA and even China has stated that the way to bring genuine change in Burma is for dialogue between the democracy movement, including the NLD, genuine ethnic representatives, and the dictatorship. The jargon used to describe this dialogue is tri-partite dialogue. This dialogue should lead to national reconciliation and a transition to democracy.
A revived UN-led effort to secure such dialogue, with strong backing from world leaders and the United Nations Security Council, must be the top priority. This must not be delegated to a new low-level UN envoy. The UN must learn from the failures of previous UN envoys, such as Razali Ismail, who did not have the strong international backing he needed, and Ibrahim Gambari, who tried a ‘hug a General’ approach of befriending the Generals, which failed miserably.
“The international community must seize the opportunity of Aung San Suu Kyi’s release to increase pressure on the dictatorship to enter into dialogue,” said Zoya Phan. “Ban Ki-Moon must personally take the lead in persuading the dictatorship to start genuine negotiations with Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic groups.”
Burma Campaign UK has produced a detailed briefing paper on Aung San Suu Kyi, which provides a basic history, as well as analysis and information on past actions and future options for the international community. The briefing is available at: http://www.burmacampaign.org.uk/index.php/news-and-reports/burma-briefing/title/aung-san-suu-kyi1
The run-up to the election
The election on 7th November was the first in Burma for 20 years. At the last election the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won 82 percent of the seats in Parliament, but the generals refused to hand over power.
The election on is stage five in a seven stage road map announced by Burma’s generals in 2003. The roadmap was designed to head off the threat of tough international sanctions following the Depayin Massacre, a failed attempt on Aung San Suu Kyi’s life in May 2003.
More than 70 of her supporters were killed in the attack on her convoy, and Aung San Suu Kyi was detained. She has remained in detention ever since.
The attack was carried out by a pro-regime political militia, the Union Solidarity Development Association (USDA), whose President is Than Shwe, the dictator of Burma. The USDA has now become the Union Solidarity Development Party, which is the main political party representing the military dictatorship in the elections.
Delegates at Annual Conference 2010 listened to hugely personal accounts of life under the repressive Burmese regime by exiled Burmese activists Waihnin Pwint Thon and Mary Thandar Tun, who both now work for the Burma Campaign UK.
Waihnin spoke of the impact of the imprisonment of her father, a pro democracy campaigner who is currently serving 65 years for organising a rally against the country’s rulers.
She spoke of the desperate plight of the Burmese people and appealed for trade unionists to join the fight for democracy. “Forced labour is widespread in Burma. Rape is also used as a weapon of war against ethnic minority women. They are forced labour victims by day and sex victims by night.”
Below you can see more of her story and the wider campaign for democracy in Burma.
Profile: Tony Stokle, NASUWT activist in Burma
Ten years ago I was invited by a friend from Amnesty International to volunteer to teach in a refugee camp on the Thailand/Burma border for a week during my Easter holidays. Being an adventurous type I agreed to go, but before going I wanted to know why there were refugees from Burma in Thailand. I researched the subject and found out about the military dictatorship in Burma and some of the associated problems.
However, a week in a refugee camp opened my eyes to the tragedy that is on going in Burma. I discovered the history and how many millions are being denied basic rights to food, water and shelter, along with thousands of political prisoners incarcerated for daring to speak out against this regime. Millions of economic migrants who have left Burma for surrounding countries now work in the ‘three D’ jobs – Dirty, Dangerous and Difficult.
I made so many friends in one week that I resolved to maintain an interest and the friendships. Ten years later I am still in touch with some of the refugees I met high up in the Dawna mountain range that separates Burma from Thailand.
I have returned to the Thailand/Burma border each year in my summer holidays doing teacher training with young refugee teachers who have had little education themselves. I have also set up a charity called Burmalink UK which provides support for education, health and human rights projects. The charity has been able to build three schools, and provide medicines for health clinics inside Burma. In addition it supports former political prisoners and other human rights projects.
In the past three years I have been involved in training members of Burmese trade unions and have developed links with the Federation of Trade Unions Burma (FTUB) and two of its associates the Federation of Trade Unions Karen (FTUK) and the Karenni Teachers Union (KnTU). I have delivered training sessions on how to build and develop democratic unions with good governance and how to work with unions around the world. (See attached reports ‘FTUK – Alive in Burma’ and ‘FTUK activities report 2008’).
My teaching career
I was a mature entrant into teaching starting in1995 at Ashington High School, Northumberland following 12 years working in industry as an engineer. I did my teacher training PGCE in Physics at Newcastle University.
In my second year of teaching I became school NASUWT rep determined to support the campaign of excessive workload and bureaucracy in a profession I loved but was being overwhelmed with new initiatives and paperwork.
I am now Head of Physics at St Robert of Newminster RC school and sixth form college (Washington, Tyne and Wear) and once again union rep, still campaigning to allow teachers to teach. I am also my association Health and Safety rep and Sunderland Federation executive member responsible for international links.
Why did I join NASUWT?
I joined the NASUWT because I believe in a collegiate approach to teaching and the NASUWT theme of ‘Working Together’ is the best way to meet the challenge of providing a first class education system for our children.
In Burma I have seen the consequences of an almost non-existent education system. I have seen the enormous desire of all Burmese people (young and old) for education and I am passionate and determined to campaign for change in Burma to allow such a wonderful people the opportunity to live fulfilling lives in peace, with a just and democratic government.
Burma Diary 2010 Week 1
Thursday 29th July
My first day in Mae Sot. Exhausted from two days of travelling. Visit FTUK office. DLM is deep inside Burma providing cross-border aid. This is very dangerous work. LS gives me a report on the primary school BLUK supports. The photos show impoverished children. He asks will we continue to support the school and would I like to visit. I promise one day – but two days of trekking inside Karen state is very dangerous for me – avoiding landmines and SPDC soldiers who shoot to kill.
Friday 30th July
Visit Right to Play to discuss a placement for Declan next year. Shocked to find out a lot of money is gambled on local migrant football matches. Last year I refereed a top of the table clash. None of the locals wanted to referee – too much money riding on it. Gambling along with alcohol is a big problem for people living in an ‘open prison’.
Saturday 31st July
FTUB training – on a Saturday so the teachers can attend. Go over the benefits of trade unions and acting in solidarity, and how we can all work together to beat this dictatorship. Among many, one compelling story is of support for people in the local community given by FTUB, for example they help a lady avoid prostitution by giving her money to buy cake ingredients. She now makes cakes and sells them on the street making about $2 a day, and can now feed her children without ‘night work’. This is simple but unless someone can put a small amount of money up front then it can’t be done.
Sunday 1st August
Visit to the migrant workers who work in Mae Sot’s biggest ‘sweat shop’. The factory is secured by a high wall, with heavy security on the gate. It is about 400m x 400m in size. It is surrounded by a shanty town of workers and their families. I have a Burmese guide. I would never have found this place without him. It is hidden in the fields on the outskirts of Mae Sot. They get paid about $3 a day for skilled machinists. They pay about $30 per month rent on a wooden or concrete shack. Some have an electric light, others use candles. They cook outside on kindling wood or charcoal. There is a real sense of community and I feel very comfortable and welcome. No threats – only smiles from the Burmese. No-one knows who they manufacture for. Labels are put on later at another factory so Primark and other such companies can’t be identified with this ‘slave labour’. But should these factories close? To return to Burma is unthinkable and they need work to avoid starving. What is the solution
Monday 2nd August
FTUK training with office staff and a few teachers who have been released from teaching duties. FTUK organize unions in the refugee camps and in the liberated areas of Karen state. (FTUB organize among the Burmese migrant workers around Bangkok, Mae Sot and in the South). They show me pictures of May Day celebrations in the liberated areas. They risk attack from SPDC troops when doing this. I show them the booklet from the Tyne and Wear May Day rally and the article on Burma, and that Anne spoke at the rally in Newcastle. LS is a Field organizer for FTUK providing training and information from the liberated areas. He risks his life every time he goes inside. I know him well. He gives me a big hug and thanks us for our support. He tells me his village is protected by KNLA soldiers. Without them the village and school would have to move. It brings home to me that they are at war and have been for 60 years.
Tuesday 3rd August
Complete FTUK training. FTUK and FTUB hope to invite a delegation of trade unionists from the UK to see the situation for themselves and ask for more support – they desperately need it. I am invited to a village about two miles outside Mae Sot to visit a nursery school. We turn off the main road and find a village hidden in the corn fields. It used to be a small Thai farming community but now it is the home of several thousand Burmese workers. The village has three factories, each with a few hundred workers. The housing is much better than the shanty town I visited earlier in the week but I told conditions are just as bad with small children employed for small wages. Now I can believe there are up to 200,000 Burmese workers around Mae Sot. The good news is that the children can go to the Thai primary school if they want to. The bad news is that many chose not to go as the curriculum is in Thai (of course) and many want to be taught in Burmese (for when they return). This gives parents the excuse to send their children out to work.
Burma Diary 2010 Week 2
Wednesday 4th August
Complete football referee training with Karen National Sports Committee. R who is in charge says he had difficulty getting the ten referees after they saw me referee last year (joke). The lads are good fun asking lots of questions about the laws of the game. The language of football is international and even ‘stateless’ people want to organize and enjoy playing in a football league. MMG knows me from previous years and he reminds me of his past. He was a student in Rangoon on the 8.8.88 demonstrations. He fled to the border in 1988 and hasn’t seen his parents since – 22 years without contact. He doesn’t know if his parents are still alive.
In the late afternoon I am asked to visit a community with many HIV/AID sufferers. They live at the recycling centre. The rubbish is separated by hand here – a small community of about 100 people work separating glass, plastic, metal and paper from the dustbin wagons. It is filthy, smelly work with children as young as five helping. They live in bamboo huts across the road. Absolutely no health and safety – no hard hats or shoes or gloves. The HIV/AID victims get monthly medication from Dr Cynthia’s clinic. But even this is now being limited as the clinic has had a 25% reduction in funding.
Thursday 5th August
Travel to Mae Sariang to meet HM – he is a head teacher of a school in Mae La Oon refugee camp. BLUK support his village school so we meet to transfer some funds. He tells us that the civil war is very near to his village. Three nearby villages have been burnt down recently by SPDC troops. His village may have to move again – he is worried for his brothers and sisters who live there. The village was attacked three years ago and the school destroyed but we paid for it to be rebuilt – I hope we don’t have to do it again. He explains that some battalions of soldiers previously loyal to the SPDC have changed sides and now fighting with the Karen army. As the election get closer the SPDC want to silence all the ethnic groups but now the task will be harder.
Friday 6th August
Arrive in Mae Hong Son and visit JRS to sort out camp passes and transport into camp for teacher trade union training on Monday. We get a warm welcome from our friends. This is our sixth visit. As it is so remote they get few visitors. Access to camp is very strict and we must visit the camp commander on Monday.
Saturday 7th August
After two days of traveling we have a rest day. MHS is a tourist resort – that’s why security at the camp is so strict. Tourists and refugees don’t mix well. We swim at the local hotel, but there is no-one else there. Trade is bad as there are few Western tourists. The political situation between the Red shirts and the Yellow shirts is hitting tourism. The King is very old and ill. People fear a lot of trouble when he dies as he holds the country together. We may see another openly military government soon.
Sunday 8th August
Invited to go into the mountains to visit the villages close to the Burma border. It takes about one hour by car. We have to move trees and use a machete to clear the road in places. Our guide LA is a Columbian and works with these remote communities. The scenery is spectacular. We are introduced and made very welcome. A few of the older people speak very good English. I ask where they learnt it and find out that most of the villagers are Burmese and leant their English in school many years ago. They point to the mountains and say they have had to trek through them as it is not safe to stay in Burma. SPDC troops are two miles away (but three hours walk). They don’t chase them once in Thailand. They have learnt Thai and are now integrated into the community. They say thousands of Karenni pass this way every year on there way to refugee camps. They are very poor but cook a meal for us (I find out later that LA had brought the chicken with him – they normally only cook rice and vegetables). It is dark when we set off home and on the way we are stopped by a mobile Thai army road block. They point guns at us. LA is fluent in Thai so he chats with them. The Karenni family traveling with us shrink out of sight and Anne tells me later they gripped her hand very tight. They were very frightened. The soldiers let us pass. This is bandit country with many drug runners and people traffickers.
Monday 9th August
After a two hour delay the camp commander sign our camp passes. I dare not tell him I am doing trade union training. My speciality is physics – he likes that. The delegates have waited for me. This is Karenni Resistance Day so I express solidarity with their struggle for peace and democracy in Burma. The Karenni are keen to learn but as they rarely get out of camp they have few opportunities. I tell I am going to Rangoon and they ask me to tell the people that they are getting organized at the border and soon they will be free of the dictatorship. My dream is for this to happen. They ask for more visits from the international community – any volunteers?.
Tuesday 10th August
We hear news of a bomb going off in Myawaddy, the border town to Mae Sot. Two people are killed. The war is very close to us. We are glad that the border had been closed as Anne and Declan should have been renewing their visas in Myawaddy and could have been caught up in it. The Burmese have closed the border in some dispute with the Thais. Some say it is because the civil war is very close to the town, others that it’s a dispute about drug and people trafficking. Who knows the truth - as they say – the first victim of war is the truth.
Today is spent sorting out our trip to Burma. We have to arrange flights and bank transfer of money – not so easy in sleepy MHS.