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A Long, Long Way to Walk in Myanmar


Myanmar dissident
Zoya Phan, left, a Burmese dissident who lives in England, doubts the sincerity of the government's new openness toward democratic reform.

GENEVA — The victory of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and Myanmar dissident, in winning a seat in Parliament has indicated a rapid shift toward democratic reform in the country. But Zoya Phan, a longstanding advocate for the Karen ethnic group in Myanmar, is cautious about the developments.

Phan was here attending the annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, a meeting organized by nonprofit groups and independent of the United Nations Human Rights Council. She discussed the decades-long human rights abuses committed by the military junta in her country against ethnic groups like hers and anyone else who easily ran afoul of the military, which has dominated power since a 1962 coup. The abuses include torture, extrajudicial killings, political arrests and use of child soldiers. Phan hopes the rest of the world will stay vigilant to the changes in Myanmar (also called Burma) as the government seems to back away from civilian repression.

“For many decades, my people have been under attack by the government,” said Phan, a slight woman who lives in Britain but is originally from Manerplaw, the Karens’ initial home base on the hilly Thai border, an area cultivated for rice and a base for pro-democracy battles against the military government. Both her parents were deeply involved in the movement. “We had to run for our lives.” A Karen resistance movement is older than the original Burma itself.

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United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon traveled to Myanmar in the last six months to assess the country’s re-entry into the global arena as it seeks to end sanctions imposed by international bodies. Yet recent reports by human rights groups suggest that President Thein Sein and the military, controlled by ethnic Burmese, remains hostile to ethnic minority groups like the Karen.

The Karen, who are multireligious, make up 7 percent of the country’s population of about 55 million; a large number  remain exiled, mostly living in Thailand in refugee camps. Phan fled there in her early teens with her family and described life in the camps as prison-like, because they were not allowed to leave. Her family subsisted on little food and basic supplies.

After spending more than 10 years as a refugee, Phan sought political asylum in Britain in 2007 and was admitted to the country in 2005. (She was educated, meanwhile, at a university in Bangkok through a grant from the Open Society Institute.) In 2009, she became a TED fellow, recognized for her activism on behalf of the Karen, and in 2010, she was honored as a young global leader by the World Economic Forum. The author of a memoir (with Damien Lewis), “Undaunted: My Struggle for Freedom and Survival in Burma,” Phan’s account of an exiled dissident family torn apart by political unrest, she acknowledges the positive changes happening in Myanmar but thinks it is just the start of a “long, long, long way to walk.”

“The government in Burma,” she said, “is very much worried about their international image. Although the government has released some political prisoners, they are only interested in international legitimacy and in removing the economic sanctions and do not care about democracy and human rights.”

Phan said the government was still committed to censoring people. Myanmar ranks 169 out of 179 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index. Another nonprofit group, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which was founded by Burmese dissidents, reports about 1,000 cases of verified and unverified political prisoners being held by the government for opposing the rule of law by the military. In recent weeks, hundreds have been released yet many remain jailed with no due legal process.

The country’s failure to adopt new technologies broadly has hindered the spread of information. Only several hundred thousand people have access to electricity, and from those, very few use the Internet, Phan said.

“People don’t have computers, mobile phones are very expensive, and if they do need the Internet they go to the cafes, which are very monitored by government spies.”

Once skeptical of the electoral process, Phan is more upbeat now that Aung San Suu Kyi has joined the Parliament with dozens of others from her political party. But Phan stressed that political negotiations must continue after the sanctions are lifted.

“If there is only a cease-fire and without political solutions, it is like pressing a pause button and not a stop button,” she said. “It only tackles the symptoms of the problems, not the root causes of the problems.”

Phan said she would continue to fight for minority rights in Myanmar, although she is not welcome inside. She works daily to promote political awareness for the Burma Campaign UK and is a founding member of the Phan Foundation, a nonprofit group set up by her family (both parents are dead) and dedicated to education and the alleviation of poverty for the Karen in Myanmar.

Although the government has given the world a glimpse of new openness to democracy, Phan said she did not foresee serious reform but only cosmetic fixes. “When we look at the dictatorship, their repressive laws have yet to be repealed,” she said. “The government does not want to talk about genuine peace.”

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Tala Dowlatshahi is based in Zurich, where she runs the communities team for the International Relations and Security Network, an online information-services project. She formerly worked as the United Nations bureau chief for Talk Radio News Service. Since 2002, Dowlatshahi has also worked as a US representative for Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans Frontieres), the Paris-based media watchdog group. Dowlatshahi has reported from Afghanistan, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Turkey, South Africa and Uganda. Her work has been featured on CNN International, BBC World News, Al Jazeera, Voice of America, Reuters and in humanitarian news programs. She is member of New York Women in Film and Television and the Overseas Press Club of America as well as a recipient of the 2011 Visual Artists Guild champion for the right of freedom of speech and expression award. She as a B.A. in mass communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and an M.A. in international development from New York University.

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