Sunday, October 28, 2007

"My father was a soldier"


Today, I met with two political activists from different ceasefire areas in Burma.
One taught in a missionary school in Shan State. He was telling me about Burma's poor educational system and the burdens of tax and forced labor. In his area, each agrarian family had to pay a year agricultural tax of 10,000 kyat or about $7.50. ($1 = 1,325 kyat). That's a huge chunk of change for a country whose per capita GDP-according to the UN-is $217, making it one of the world's 20 poorest countries. The USA Today report HERE.

(According to one of my Burmese contacts, the way that the junta got Burmese citizens to turn out en-masse for the nationwide pro-government rallies proceeding the crackdown was to threaten them with penalties of 50,000 kyat ($38.50). BBC reported on ethnic Chins who fled Burma because they couldn't afford paying the 10,000 kyat fines for not attending the rallies. Those who have refused to attend have been jailed. The report HERE).

In addition to these exorbitant taxes and fines, villagers from this particular area in Shan State had to forferit 10% of their harvests to the Burma Army. Also, they occasionally have to serve as forced labor for road construction projects and Burma Army camp maintenance.

He also told me of his father. His father joined the Kachin Independence Army, the military arm of the Kachin Independence Organization, in the early 60's and fought the Burma Army for 10-11 years. After the KIO signed a ceasefire in 1993, the KIA splintered into smaller factions.

The other activist, who I had met on a previous occasion, came from Mon State, a territory that the insurgent New Mon State Party brought under ceasefire in 1995. When I asked him what he thought of the current negotiations, he said, "It's not real. We have 50 years of experience [in dealing with the junta]. They just like to tell the world that they're talking with Aung San Suu Kyi. When our leaders went to negotiate with the government [more than 40 years ago], they were arrested [After the SLORC came to power]. We lost our [15] leaders that way. After we signed the ceasefire, they didn't let us take part in the National Convention. We know them well. We need the international community to act, especially China and ASEAN.

I asked him how he and other activists maintained hope for a peaceful and democratic Burma. He replied, "That's all we do all day, everyday, is talk about how to keep hope."