I was working in Thailand this summer when Aung San Suu Kyi came to town. The Nobel Peace Prize winner and international symbol of democracy was on her first trip out of Burma since 1988. Though I didn’t see her, colleagues described a mood of ecstasy and hope among the crowd of 5,000 Burmese refugees.
Suu Kyi spent an hour in Mae La, the largest refugee camp in Thailand and home to over 40,000 Burmese refugees. The camp residents waited for hours in the mud and sun to hear Suu Kyi speak, after having woken at dawn to decorate the camp with pictures of her. Despite the often bleak life in a refugee camp, these people welcomed their hero with open arms, asking only that she not forget them.
Burmese people and others deeply admire Suu Kyi, but after decades of oppression and violence, many also deeply distrust the Burmese government. Burmese leaders have done little to assuage their fears.
In Burmese refugee camps this summer, I got to know many young students in a peace and conflict education program. In discussions of recent Burmese reforms, students often said they feared the changes are more aesthetic than substantive. Political prisoners have been released, only to meet restrictions on speech. Military rulers have refused to honor president Thein Sein’s two requests to cease fighting in the eastern ethnic states. In February, the military began bombing one of those states, ending a 17-year ceasefire.
One girl I spoke to described the refugee camp as a safe cage. Though opportunities for educational and economic advancement are highly limited in the camp, at least inhabitants know they can send their children to camp schools and that rations will reach the table. Refugees worry that as soon as displaced minority populations return to Burma, the government will return to its discriminatory — and, historically, genocidal — practices or ignore the people completely, in line with decades of systematic neglect.
Disappointingly, however, Suu Kyi and her political allies have remained largely silent on the subject of the continued persecution of ethnic minorities. This silence has everything to do with the undemocratic military hierarchy still in place: The top official in Burma today is the military commander-in-chief rather than the civilian president, who is relegated to a third-tier role. Though Suu Kyi is a member of parliament, that body is only partly elected; a quarter of the seats are reserved for military officials.
In her address to students during last night’s Chubb Fellow dinner, Suu Kyi acknowledged that the ethnic Burmese had not treated the ethnic minorities in the country fairly. She reminded students that though Burma had made progress, there was still much to do to secure a free and democratic country for all Burmese citizens.
While she was under house for much of the last two decades, Suu Kyi refused to back down from advocating for democracy and freedom in Burma. Now, out from house arrest, elected to the parliament and internationally influential, she must be all the more emphatic in her support for peace and collaboration with Burma’s beleaguered ethnic minorities. If the current leaders of Burma want true progress and unification, Suu Kyi and those around her must not shy away from these issues for fear of political retaliation. They must remember that they stand not just for citizens in Burma’s capital but also for the refugees who turned out in droves to embrace Suu Kyi and her promise of equality.
I was walking around the refugee camp in Thailand one day when I heard a young man calling after me, yelling “Teacher, teacher!” I turned around, startled by the urgency in his voice. In a quick exchange, the young man introduced himself as a school teacher in camp. He was in the middle of an English class and wanted me to speak to his students so they could practice English with a native speaker.
As I stood at the front of the bamboo schoolroom asking the teenagers questions, the young teacher interrupted me. He began to explain that he was going nowhere in life, because even after reaching the highest education level possible in the camp, neither the Thai nor the Burmese government recognizes his school certificates.
The man wanted to know what I could do to change this situation. Almost in tears, he asked me “Can you change this? Can you tell anyone? We don’t have a future here in camp. I don’t have a future.”
I didn’t have an answer.
Katherine Aragon is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.