Vying for an End to the Violence

    A refugee (left) speaks passionately about his experiences in Burma as his aquaintance translates. (Photos by Jaclyn Snow/Guardian)

    Normally, UCSD students make dozens of decisions every day:
    which dining hall to eat at, which classes to take, which party to go to. But
    what if they didn’t have the right to decide the way they live their own lives?
    For the citizens of the Union of Myanmar, a country in Southeast Asia formally
    called Burma
    and plagued by military coups and control since the 1960s, such restrictions
    are a part of everyday reality.

    Earl Warren College senior Camela Nitollama mans a booth where students were able to sign a petition, write letters to the United Nations and pick up a “Free Burma” pin to show support.

    The country’s current leader, Senior General Than Shwe,
    assumed power from its original socialist dictatorship and has since
    implemented strict laws, choking the civil liberties of the Myanmar people
    and placing them in grave danger.

    Currently, more than 1,400 political prisoners remain under
    arrest, and thousands more continue to disappear from their homes each night.
    Internet access has been cut within the country, phone lines are monitered and
    journalists are threatened with violence for reporting any information to
    outside governments or agencies.

    Three refugees, Sein, Keh Heh and Donoo, came to UCSD as
    part of the Free Burma teach-in that took place Nov. 19 in Great Hall. They
    were part of a speaking panel that also included Karma Lekshe Tsomo, a
    professor of theology and religious studies at the University
    of San Diego, and Tim Hardy, a Myanmar civil
    rights activist and former refugee.

    A collaborative teach-in sponsored by International Affairs
    Group, Amnesty International, Coalition of South Asian Peoples, Coalition of
    Asian and Pacific Islanders, Art of Living and Sixth College Residential Life,
    Free Burma was comprised of a panel of speakers and presentations which
    informed students about the current conflict in the country, and included
    several petitions and resolution stations at which students were encouraged to
    participate with their new awareness of the issue. The event was also
    affiliated with International Rescue Committee, an organization dedicated to
    the resettlement of refugees like Sein.

    Students were also given a chance to ask the panel’s
    speakers questions. And although hesitant at first, many students were eager to
    discuss the conflict with the educators to learn more and find out what they
    could do to help.

    “Most students don’t even know where Burma is,” said Harrison Seung, a Revelle College senior and member of Asian
    Pacific Islanders. “I don’t think students know what’s going on there, and for
    a school with such a large Asian population, it’s a big deal, even if the news
    isn’t covering the conflict anymore.”

    While Hardy discussed the country’s history and the swift
    political changes that have recently occurred, Tsomo addressed the religious
    and social aspects of life for the citizens of Myanmar. Residents live in fear of
    political persecution by their own government. About 90 percent of the
    villagers of Myanmar
    are Buddhists, and the ideology of nonviolence and peace associated with the
    religion has left them helpless in the hands of cruel military regimes.

    Buddhist nun and USD professor Karma Lekshe Tsomo answers student questions.

    “It’s important for students to be aware of justice and
    injustice in the world,” Tsomo said. “As young adults, their energy and passion
    can be effectively channeled to change trouble spots, like [Myanmar] or Tibet. It’s the responsibility of
    every human being to correct injustice, especially those people who have a
    voice and can use that voice.”

    Although Free Burma’s main focus was its panel of speakers
    that offered revealing information about the current situation and historical
    significance of the civil conflict in Myanmar,
    many students came early and stayed late in order to write letters to the U.N.
    Security Council, or to sign electronic petitions as part of the U.S. campaign for Myanmar.

    Students attending the event were also given buttons to
    demonstrate their support, and many felt strongly about the political and
    social conflicts occurring in a country so far from San Diego.

    Sixth
    College
    senior Tara
    Ramanathan supervised the petition stations and informed students of the nature
    of the resolutions that were being sent to both local and national security
    commissions.

    “Students, as citizens, need to become aware of this issue
    and take action,” Ramanathan said. “The point of the [Free Burma] event is to
    get people concerned, make them aware, and to inspire and motivate them. We
    would need hundreds of thousands of signatures to really make an impact, but
    this is a good step in the right direction.”

    The petition tables remained full of students both before
    and after the teach-in, and Karen Yang, an Eleanor Roosevelt
    College
    junior and member
    of Amnesty International, said she was pleased with the turnout.

    Enlarged photographs of Buddhist monks, the populous’ chosen
    leaders of revolution, stood at the hall’s entrance and captivated attendees
    with their shocking nature.

    The monks were seen peacefully protesting in front of armed
    soldiers, and the series of photographs told the rest of the story: brawls and
    riots; sandals and shoes left behind in the bloody cobblestone streets; one man
    face down in a river of blood and monks refusing religious alms and ultimately
    bribes from the military regime.

    These photographs were shocking to some students but
    informative for others.

    “You see that life isn’t just black and white, but still a
    lot of people don’t care,” Thurgood
    Marshall
    College

    sophomore Lawrence Lau said. “But if students don’t care about this, what do
    they care about?”

    While Sein’s speech marked the end of the Free Burma
    teach-in, his words summarized the
    importance of the discussion for all people.

    “When you are happy, don’t forget those who suffer,” he
    said. “Don’t forget about us.”

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