10 questions for Burma human rights activist Bo Kyi

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Bo Kyi was imprisoned by the Burmese military junta for seven years (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Bo Kyi, a renowned Burmese human rights activist, was in town last week on a speaking tour to raise awareness of the changing situation in Burma, and to help promote the new film Into the Current.

Bo Kyi and filmmaker Jeanne Hallacy chose Seattle as a stop on their six city US tour for good reason: several hundred refugees from civil war and political persecution in Burma are resettled in our region each year.

I got the chance to sit down with Bo Kyi at the Elliot Bay Bookstore Cafe last weekend to find out more about what’s really going on in Burma:

1. Can you summarize the human rights issues in Burma? Is this an ethnic conflict, a matter of political repression, or both?

When we talk about the human rights situation in Burma we need to start with political prisoners. There’s no civil and poltical rights in Burma and no rule of law. Anyone can be arrested at any time.

Another human rights violation is the child soldier, where the children are forced into the army. Before 1988 the army was very popular and people wanted to join, but in 1988, the army killed students, men, women, peaceful demonstrators. After that the army wasn’t popular anymore. The Burmese military regime wanted to create the biggest army in Asia, so they have to recruit, but people aren’t willing to join. So they force the children to join the army. Children are arrested on their way back from school, or in the video shop or in the cinema.

The third issue is that there has been a civil war in Burma, from 1948 until now. Currently there is a lot of fighting in Kachin state (in northern Burma, along the border with China). The Burmese army is attacking the KIA (Kachin Independent Army). As a result of the civil war, many people have become refugees on the China-Burma border, and half a million people have become IDP’s (Internally Displaced People).

2. There are some signs of reform by the junta in Burma. Do you see this as a positive step forward?

I wouldn’t say ‘positive.’ They did general reforms, I recognize that, but really they just changed their tactics. They were playing a closed game, now they’re playing an open game. They started by releasing Aung San Suu Kyi, later they released other prominent political prisoners on January 13, 2012. They’re doing this for the media. They love for the media people to write something about this.

But we still see censorship. For example, Aung San Suu Kyi’s campaign speech last week was censored. The chairperson of parliament’s speech was also censored.

So it’s difficult to trust that they’re making real reforms.

My organization is asking for the release of all political prisoners. In January they released 302 political prisoners, but we estimate there are 800 still in prison. But the Burmese regime doesn’t announce when they release them, and they don’t announce when they arrest them, so it’s really difficult to count.

The international community is just interested in the urban politics: Aung San Suu Kyi was released; Min Ko Naing was released. Now [Aung San Suu Kyi] is going to run as a candidate in the upcoming by-elections.

Seeing such things, international people talk like Burma is changing. But I don’t see any changes or benefit for the people of Burma. I don’t see any changes in the on-the-ground situation. The civil war still continues. Without stopping the civil war its really difficult to get peace and stabilization in Burma.

3. What do you think will happen in the upcoming elections? Will Aung San Suu Kyi win a seat in Parliament? If she does, will that mean real change?

Yeah, she will win. But I’m not sure how many seats her party [the National League for Democracy] will win. When I see the ground situation, they’re just not willing to do free and fair elections. For example, when they announced the voter lists, they include people who have passed away, they include people who are underage. We have evidence of such kinds of fraud.

They destroyed Aung San Suu Kyi’s party’s headquarters. All such things happen, so we have our doubts. Whether the current reforms are real or not, that’s the question for everybody in Burma.

4. What’s at stake for these military rulers? What are they afraid of losing to democracy?

They’ve committed a lot of crimes. They feel insecure. What they’re afraid of is that if they lose their power, they will face retribution. That is their fear I think, even though we don’t have any thought of revenge.

5. Why did they feel like they could get away with this for 50 years and now they can’t? What’s changed?

The Burmese economy is really down. They need money. The United States and  European Union imposed sanctions, so that is a real problem for them. They want to get the sanctions lifted. In order to control the power they need to open up some things. They need to deal with Aung San Suu Kyi. They need to deal with other problems. So therefore, they’re changing their tactics.

6. Your country has two names, Burma and Myanmar. What do those names mean and which do you call it?

I prefer Burma. We used to call it Burma, since a long time ago. But after 1988, there was a Burmese army coup and they changed the name, because they wanted to forget what happened in 1988. In the 1988 demonstrations they killed more than 3000 people. They want to forget such kind of images, so they changed the name.

7. I understand that Burma is identified with specific ethnic group. What does Myanmar mean?

Myan means ‘very quick’. Mar is ‘very strong’. We love the meaning of Myanmar: We’re the quick, we’re the strong. But they don’t have the right to change the country’s name. If you want to change the country’s name, you need to do a referendum, you need to ask the people whether they want to change it.

8. You’ve lived in exile on the Thai-Burmese border for 13 years. There  are now estimated to be over a hundred thousand refugees in that area. What are the conditions like there?

There are many refugee camps along the Thailand-Burma border. The Refugees are from the ethnic conflict areas, Karen, also Shan. Also now there are Kachin refugees close to the Chinese-Burma border. Those refugees fled to China because their villages were burnt down by soliders, also many villagers, especially women, are raped by the Burmese soldiers, and their children are forced to join the army.

9. You were held as a political prisoner for seven years under what sound like terrible conditions. What kept you going during that time?

Before I got involved in the struggle, I knew I would be imprisoned, if I was lucky. If I was not lucky, I would be dead.

While I was marching in 1988, some of the students died in my lap. Some of the students died before me. How can I forget their faces? They sacrificed their lives. They’ve already died, and I’m still alive. So I need to continue.

10. If Seattleites find out about this issue and want to help, what should they do?

Filmmaker Jeanne Hallacy explains: We’re launching this Embracing Freedom Campaign, in conjunction with Bo Kyi’s tour. It’s an international speaking tour he’s going on. In the States we’re in six cities, and then we’re going to Europe, and then Asia.

This campaign is meant to draw attention to the fact that there are hundreds of political prisoners who remain. We’re asking people who are willing, individuals but preferably orgainzations to ‘adopt’ prisoners who are lesser known, to shed light on their case, to advocate for their release.

The campaign officially launches next month, but in the meantime, interested parties can email info[at]aappb.org, follow the facebook page Stand Up for Human Rights and Democracy in Burma, and visit the website of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Alex is a cofounder and editor of The Seattle Globalist. He's a visual journalist whose work has been published by PBS, The Seattle Times, FRONTLINE/World and the Seattle Weekly.  Alex teaches journalism in the University of Washington's Department of Communication and recently directed the documentary film Barzan.

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