BURMA: Lessons on the Road to Freedom

Saturday, August 7, 2010
The Age
South Eastern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights

Her father died when she was two, one of her brothers was killed by a landmine, and her home was burnt down by soldiers, forcing her family to make a dangerous border crossing through the jungle. Yet the first thing you notice about 19-year-old Day Wah Htoo is her smile. Her wide, cheeky grin is matched by an irrepressible curiosity about the world outside her home: a sprawling refugee camp in the hills of north-west Thailand, just a few kilometres from the Burmese border.

Within minutes of meeting us, she is asking in halting English where we are from, saying she'd like to visit Parliament House in Canberra some day, and that her dream is to be a politician in a free Burma.

It's a dream she plans to dedicate her life to, as part of a new generation standing up against a decades-old military regime - but doing that means challenging even older prejudices within her community.

Day Wah Htoo and 27 classmates have just graduated from the Karen Young Women Leadership School, a cluster of bamboo stilt huts ringed by thick forest, built on a slope above the camp. Run by locals with Australian funding, the school teaches women in their late teens and early 20s from a Karen ethnic background a unique mix of political and practical skills.

But even in a crowded curriculum of international law, women's rights and typing lessons, they still squeeze in some fun. Once a week is international movie night. The teachers choose from a folder of scratched DVDs - Billy Elliot, Mulan and Hotel Rwanda among them - to spark class discussions on gender roles and politics.

Day Wah Htoo's favourite movie of the year was Whale Rider. ''When I watched Whale Rider, I feel that the woman also has the same skills and abilities as the men. But sometimes the community doesn't accept that,'' she says in Karen.

Her 20-year-old friend Mu Sei Sei liked Bend It Like Beckham better. ''It shows that girl, she's really in love with football and she secretly tries to play,'' she says. ''But her family said it's a boys' sport. Her first challenge is her own parents and also the other men. But she really tries very hard to show that she is equal and can make it.''

The school was built with funding from the International Women's Development Agency, a small Melbourne charity celebrating its 25th anniversary today.

Each day at the school starts at 5am with outdoor exercises, followed by a packed day of cooking, cleaning and classes, until lights out at 9pm, when the generator goes off.

Learning about human rights for the first time, some students are taken aback to discover that things they took for granted as children are considered human rights violations.

Most of them have lost family and friends in Burma; many have had to watch people being tortured and killed; others have been used as forced labour, carrying food and ammunition for the Burmese army.

The United Nations, Human Rights Watch and others have collected countless horror stories of how Burma's unelected ''State Peace and Development Council'' treats its suspected opponents. Ethnic minority groups such as the Karen, who have long fought for independence, have suffered some of the worst repression. Crucifixions. Beheadings. Rape. Imprisonment without trial and jail sentences with no end in sight.

In full view of the world, the regime has kept the Nobel peace prize-winner and democratically elected prime minister of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, locked up for the better part of two decades.

So if someone as famous as Suu Kyi can be treated that way, why aren't these women afraid of the consequences of attending a community leadership school like this - especially when many are keen to return to Burma one day?

''I am afraid,'' 18-year-old Mu Di Paw answers quietly. ''It's really difficult work if you choose to become a community leader. As we know, the Burmese regime, they have really good tricks … [and] sometimes we will suffer. But we need to do something if we want change.''

The understated confidence of graduates such as Mu Di Paw is not yet shared by the newly arrived class of 2011 students.

When 28-year-old school co-ordinator Ta Mla Saw looks at the timid new students, she recognises herself at their age. ''I used to be very quiet and shy like many of the new students here. I didn't like to talk in public, I'd just cry,'' she says, in a voice that can be heard several rooms away.

Donations from Australia keep the school running, including paying for extra food for the students and their teachers to top up their camp rations of rice, beans, fish paste, chilli and cooking oil. In the past year, that funding has also paid for two laptops to be added to the classroom collection of ancient typewriters.

But on the shelves above the typewriters, their small library is falling apart. Tattered English readers - abridged paperback versions of Anne of Green Gables, Sherlock Holmes and A Christmas Carol - have been read so often that the pages are coming loose from their spines.

School co-ordinator Ta Mla Saw is responsible for several other projects, both inside Burma and along the Thai border, including a nearby dorm for child refugees. ''Sometimes I feel very tired and fed up,'' she says. ''But [watching the students] I just fall in love with this work again. As I have told them, every time you feel tired or you feel you don't understand things, just remember there are a lot of people who need you.''

Some of the school's graduates have since returned to Burma, working in health and education services, or supporting families forced to flee their homes, such as with baby kits for new mothers.

Others remain in Thailand, with many putting their new skills to use to help keep the crowded camps functioning.

It is a huge job - there are 18,000 people living at Mae Ra Ma Luang camp, where the school is based, and it is still growing. Not far south of here, another camp shelters more than 40,000 refugees.

Keeping the peace between families and neighbours in these makeshift communities is an exhausting task, as father-of-seven and long-time camp leader Milton knows. It's one of the reasons why he has supported the school since it opened nearly a decade ago - and why he is back for the class of 2010's graduation ceremony, handing out prizes to the best and the most improved.

''In the past, we didn't have a chance to study women's rights and human rights. So the men thought the women have to stay at home, and only the men were making all the decisions,'' he says.

''We didn't intentionally want the women to suffer - but our decisions affect them and sometimes make more work for the women.

''Now that we have women in decision-making roles, it's changed, because they can be the voice of the women. So when we make a decision now, it's good we don't exclude the view of the women.''

On the day of the graduation, the school office is converted into a small hall, with streamers and ''Happy birthday!'' balloons strung from the wooden rafters. Parents squeeze into rows of plastic chairs, fanning themselves in the mid-morning heat.

Dressed in immaculate white shirts and red sarongs, the graduates are on their best behaviour to the end, staying hushed and solemn until their names are called to collect their leaving certificates. Posing for photos at the end, the graduates finally break into delighted smiles.

Among the top students called up a second time to collect prizes are Day Wah Htoo, Mu Sui Sei and Mu Di Paw - winners for big improvements in their reading, self-confidence and initiative.

Soon afterwards, Day Wah Htoo stands at the front of the room and takes over from the teachers as the master of ceremonies. She speaks without a stumble in Karen, her mother proudly watching from her seat.

The next morning, we walk through the camp to visit Day Wah Htoo's mother. As she sits on her bamboo mat floor, the drumbeat of rain on the leaf roof makes it hard to hear her faint voice, especially as she tells how soldiers burnt her village in Burma.

But she has high hopes that her daughter will be able to build a better life. ''Now I am very old, I don't see a future for myself,'' she says, her daughter translating.

''Day Wah Htoo is my future, and the future for our community.''