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FALL, 1998: Volume 3 Issue 3

Pro-democracy Peace Team Deported from Burma by Val Liveoak

In the end, we will win, because all the military has are guns. —Daw Aun San Suu Kyi.

On August 8, Burmese commemorated the 10th anniversary of a pro-democracy uprising where between 3,000 and 10,000 pro-democracy activists were killed by the military junta. The plight of the Burmese has been known to the world since the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Daw Aun San Suu Kyi in 1991. Despite this recognition, the military continue their harsh rule, pro-democracy activists are arbitrarily jailed and killed, the population is subjected to an intense propaganda campaign that seeks to eliminate “outside influences,” thousands of refugees languish in camps in Thailand, and Burma's natural resources are exploited without concern for ecology or the rights of the people who live near them.

Despite this, Burma's major opposition movement, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Daw Aun San Suu Kyi, has struggled to gain power nonviolently. Only recently released from a strict house arrest, the Nobel laureate is still restricted in her movements and limited in her capacity to communicate with the Burmese public and the rest of the world. Her colleagues in the NLD fare worse in a despotic regime that has little respect for human rights, no checks on its exercise of power, and is enriching itself by its control of the entire national economy. A recent news story states that 882 members of the NLD have been arrested since May, 1998—196 of whom were elected representatives who were never allowed to serve. Controlling all the media, the government vilifies the NLD and keeps human rights concerns expressed abroad from the people. Even a copy of the Herald-Tribune newspaper distributed in a five-star Rangoon hotel had articles cut out by government censors.

This year, the commemoration of the massacre of pro-democracy activists came to international attention when an eighteen-member multinational peace team was detained, tried, sentenced to a five-year term of imprisonment, and deported. The team had gone to Rangoon (Yangon) to hand out flyers that said: We are your friends from around the world. We have not forgotten you. We support your hopes for human rights and democracy. 8/8/88 - Don't Forget - Don't Give Up

This message was categorized in their trial as an incitement to unrest in the civilian population, prompting the comment from Jeremy Woodrum of the Free Burma Coalition, “When the regime perceives a simple message of compassion as a crime and a threat to stability, then you know their grip on power is getting weak.”

I spoke with Michele Keegan, a sophomore at American University who was a member of the team, about her experience. I was interested not only in the action they had carried out, but also in the way they had worked together as a peace team.

She said her interest in Burma and human rights began when she came to American University last year. The Free Burma Coalition there brought her into contact with a number of Burmese people whom she has come to respect, love and want to help. “I didn't deserve to be born into my wonderful family and a free country, and they don't deserve to be living under a brutal dictatorship, either. If I or my sisters were living that way, I'd want someone to help them,” she said. As she became more active with the Coalition, she realized, “If I had power and knowledge to help them, and I didn't do something about it, then it would be a waste…Somebody else isn't always going to do it.”

Her concern to help the Burmese led her to join five other American University students in a trip to Thailand to visit refugee camps and exile groups supporting democracy. There they learned of the proposed action being organized by ALTSEAN-BURMA (Alternative Asean Network on Burma), an organization that seeks the end of the dictatorship. After a two-way screening process, they joined the team. (“They knew who we were from our contacts, and that we weren't some sort of wild radicals who wanted armed struggle.”) Two of the students were unable to make flight arrangements, but Michele Keegan and three others joined a fourteen-person team of people from Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines and Australia. Working together, the group planned to enter Burma wearing black tee-shirts proclaiming “Don't forget 8/8/88” in English and Burmese (a reference to the pro-democracy uprising 10 years ago) and distribute the flyers.

“We discussed what might happen [when they distributed the flyers], what our options would be, and what risks we were taking. It was great that some of us came from countries like Malaysia, with a different style of government than our democracy.” The diverse backgrounds enriched the team's preparation for the action by bringing different viewpoints and experience to the discussion. This diversity didn't make teamwork harder, she affirms, because “There were no personal problems, [since] we all believed in what we were going to do. We all got along, respected and enjoyed each other.” Decisions were made by consensus, with the details left to the individuals to decide. “We split up into six groups of three each, pretty much on the basis of nationality…I was with Nisha Marie Anand, another American University student, and Tyler Giannini, a Washington DC lawyer.” In this small group—which served as an affinity group—they further discussed options and planned to watch out for each other during the action. “We didn't make any decisions about how each of us would respond to being detained, such as if we would go limp, because each person has to make these decisions for herself, and we couldn't force someone to do something she didn't agree with.”

Other decisions were postponed. “When we were being held in detention, we thought that it might be possible that the government would offer to release the Americans and not the others. We didn't decide exactly what we would do in that case, but instead we waited to see if that would happen. We thought that we wouldn't go along with that plan unless it seemed that the Embassy would stop its efforts on our behalf and that we would have been more effective putting pressure on the Burmese government from abroad.” On the contrary, “The Embassy was phenomenal. They visited us several times a day, brought us faxes from our families, and supported us during our trial.” They also kept the families of the detainees informed about the situation.

During the ordeal, the Embassy and groups in the US kept contacts with the Americans' families to support them. She regrets that she was unable to let her family know of her plans to go to Burma from Thailand. “The Thai government plays both sides of the situation and we believed that our calls might be tapped by Burmese intelligence, so we had to keep our intentions secret. I apologized to my family for putting them through a very hard week.” Although the plan to go into Burma arose after their arrival in Thailand, and the Free Burma Coalition didn't know about it either, she was sure that they would “advocate for us, create a stir, and try to bring us home. And they would try to get our message out… The Burmese people can't grab the world's attention. We had to do that.” Burmese government-in-exile officials contacted US politicians, and Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, from Michele Keegan's home district, traveled to Asia on her behalf. He was refused a visa to enter Burma.

At the time of their detention, members of her affinity group were together, wearing their tee-shirts and handing out leaflets. When the authorities approached them, Michele Keegan says, “I made kind of a scene, refusing go along with them until they showed us some identification, and just being non-cooperative. Nisha was hit hard in the face by one of them. Even though she wasn't making as much of a commotion as I was, I think he hit her because she's of [East] Indian extraction, and looked like a Burmese. They are used to treating their people like that.”

Later they were taken to police headquarters. “We were all treated pretty much the same” and confined to an office, as was each of the other groups of three persons. Things were confused, but after the first day there, they were all given mattresses and blankets, and allowed to order out food and drink. After three days, they were taken to a police guest house where the entire group was allowed to be together. “We kept our spirits up by singing songs and playing cards.”

While the Burmese government characterized the protesters as “uncooperative,” there was only one thing they struggled over. “They wanted us to take off our tee-shirts and at one point threatened to take them off by force. We just said, 'Yes, we will take them off, but only after we see our embassy representative.' ” Apparently their expressions of willingness were enough to allay the authorities, because the embassy personnel were granted access to the protesters. After that they did take off their tee-shirts. The main torment they were subjected to was uncertainty—they weren't told what was going to happen to them. “The military would always respond to our requests with 'Please wait, we will arrange,' but nothing came of that. We couldn't show them we were afraid.” The pretense helped them to suppress their fears.

Even on the day of their trial, they were given no notice. They were awakened at 6:30 and told to get ready to go in one hour. Their clothes were collected to be washed as usual. After three hours, they were transported to a courtroom, where they were all together. While the Embassy was represented, they had no legal counsel. “The trial would have been sort of funny if it hadn't been our lives at stake. The whole thing was being videotaped. The prosecutor and judge were laughing and talking to each other, and about thirty minutes worth of proceedings in Burmese would be condensed to a one minute summary in English by a court official. After the prosecution presented witnesses to the fact that we had handed out the flyers (which we never denied) they also testified that they found wart medicine among our things at the hotel. I don't know why that was supposed to be so bad. I don't understand how our message could be interpreted as inciting civil unrest, the crime we were accused of.” The judges recessed, and upon their return the lights in the room were lowered, and with the judges spotlighted their sentence to five years imprisonment was proclaimed. Immediately an appeal panel of military judges entered and said that they were going to be deported. “Although they didn't tell us anything, the police had known in advance what was going to happen—they returned our dirty clothes to us at the airport.”

When asked what she learned from the experience, Michele Keegan said she had an even greater appreciation for her life at home. “America's not perfect, but I am lucky to have the freedom and opportunities I have.” She was reminded of her family's support. “They don't understand everything about why I did what I did, but they always trusted me to make good decisions, and were happy to see me home safe…I also learned about the power I had to impact the world. One ordinary person who cares for the people and believes in what she does can get international awareness.” Finally, she emphasized that work at home is also important. Her group recently began a boycott of a business active in Burma, Ericsson Telephones, and within a few days got an agreement to withdraw. She believes that selective boycotts of companies doing business with the Burmese junta are effective. As she says, “the [Burmese] people themselves have asked us to do this.”

Her commitment to nonviolent actions remains “100%.” While the group was inspired by Gandhi's thoughts and actions, they did not have any specific training in nonviolence. Michele Keegan also was inspired by the teaching of the Methodist church in which she was raised. “Methodists teach that we should be the best person we can be, that we should love and understand everybody.” As she was planning her trip, she “prayed a lot, and spent a lot of quiet time alone.” Since the team were from diverse religions and beliefs, she said they did not have any sort of spiritual preparation for their action.

Michele Keegan continues to be even more active than before. She looks forward to finishing her degree in Psychology, and maybe becoming a counselor at a crisis or refugee center. I don't think that she was aware of the potential for the long-term, life-changing impact of her action, but I know from my experience that these actions affect many lives and the effects may not be obvious for a long time. She says she doesn't foresee any more international peace team activity, but that she doesn't intend to wait for somebody else to do something about Burma.

Background information about Burma is available from www.csburma.org or email hag2@cornell.edu, www.burma.net, www.freeburma.org, and ALTSEAN-BURMA by email: altsean@ksc.th.com

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