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Burmese students fear for friends and family

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October 4, 2007

By MEGAN JAMES

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College junior Yan Oak has spent the past few weeks struggling to communicate with friends in his hometown of Rangoon, Burma. The military-run government, which refers to the country as Myanmar, had cut off phone lines and severed Internet connections in response to recent protests sparked by a 100-percent increase in fuel prices.

But Yan managed to get through, and has been able to keep a close eye on the action as his friends join thousands of protestors and monks in the largest demonstration against the country’s military junta since a popular uprising in 1988.

In an effort to do something here in Vermont, half way around the world, Yan and fellow Burmese student Htar Htar Yu organized a series of events this week, including a panel discussion about the current state of Burma. The students have spent each day in the lobby of the college library answering questions about their home country and giving away red t-shirts that say, “Free Burma,” to spread awareness.

Yan and Htar Htar, a senior, have also been fasting to show solidarity with the Buddhist monks who have led the demonstrations, refusing alms from the military in a symbolic gesture crucial to what they’re calling the “Saffron Revolution.”

“Being a Burmese here, I feel helpless,” Htar Htar said. “I don’t know what I should do.”

She wants to see more people protesting in Burma — “I’m cheering from here,” she said — but she’s afraid of the suffering the demonstrators might face if the military retaliates.

“It’s kind of hard for me, but I think at least we’re doing something, and I’m surprised that people (at Middlebury) responded to this so quickly,” she said.

In Rangoon this week the protestors are scared, Yan said, much more so than the last time the Burmese voiced dissent from the military, which has had the country in a stronghold since 1962.

Yan’s parents took part in small protests through the ’60s and ’70s, he said. But in 1988, when the junta decided to devalue the national currency, which hurt the common people by crippling the Burmese economy, university students and monks led hundreds of thousands of people in a popular uprising. The military opened fire on the unarmed demonstrators, killing about 3,000 people.

“Before the massacre of 1988, people didn’t have the idea that their government could actually come out and start shooting at them,” Yan said. “But our generation, who were born in the ’80s or early ’90s, grew up knowing and fearing that anything we did that might tick off the government in any way, might destroy our lives.”

Yan grew up in Burma’s main city, Rangoon, where life was relatively calm, he said, despite a pervading sense of fear. But Htar Htar grew up in the jungle, fleeing from the military with her parents, who were affiliated with the Tavoyan United Front, an opposition militia.

At the panel discussion on Tuesday Htar Htar shared her earliest childhood memory, an ambush in the jungle.  

“My mom, she was pregnant, and she was holding my hand and my brother in her other hand, and we were running away for life, up to the hill,” she said. “That was my first memory of my childhood.”

Until she and her parents moved to a refugee camp in another part of Burma in 1996, Htar Htar never attended school. In the jungle, she and other children would gather for reading and writing lessons, using flat rocks as blackboards and small colored stones as chalk. Their classroom was an overturned tree, she said.

Much of Htar Htar’s family never made it out of the jungle. Two of her sisters died of malaria, one of her brothers of chicken pox, and her aunt and uncle were both shot.

But Htar Htar and her parents were lucky. In 1998 they snuck over the border into Thailand, home to a million displaced people, and lived there in exile. Htar Htar’s parents are still there now, living in a border town where Burmese are regularly rounded up and deported.

“Most of them are from the Karen ethnic group, and they are deported, sent back to Burma,” she said. “But then they come back to Thailand because they have no home to go to in Burma.”

In 2000, Htar Htar started working for the National Coalition for the Union of Burma. That’s where she met Christina Sivret from Barre, Vt. The Middlebury College graduate urged her to come the United States.

She spent a year as an exchange student at Barre’s Spaulding High School and then returned to Thailand, where she was arrested at the airport, but finally released to her parents.

DIFFICULT TRANSITION

It was a difficult transition to life at Middlebury College, she said, but after four years, she is now settled and ready to share her story. She hopes to connect with the Peace and Justice Center in Burlington and begin speaking to groups around the state.

It can be painful to reach back in her memory, she said, but it’s one way she knows she can help from here in the U.S.

“It’s in every part of my bones,” she said of her past. “It’s all I’ve got.”

Htar Htar is currently working on a senior thesis, exploring the gender roles in Southeast Asian refugee camps, the camps that were once her home.

Htar Htar knows one thing for sure, she said. When she finishes college, she wants to return to Burma. She believes Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist, who has been under house arrest in Burma for 11 of the past 18 years, will lead the country in a new direction.

“She is my idol,” Htar Htar said. “I want her to be president. The Burmese people are ready for change.”

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