This article was originally published last fall  in the Buddhist Peace Fellowship Newsletter. It is a concise summary of the conditions in Burma, which have changed very little since the article was written.
Once a beautiful and prosperous Southeast Asian country, Burma has been harshly ruled by a military dictatorship for twenty-seven years. During that time the economy has collapsed, the ethnic minorities who make up 30 percent of Burma’s population have been attacked, thousands of students and workers have been tortured and jailed for nonviolent pro-democracy demonstrations, and 10,000–20,000 students have fled to makeshift jungle camps on Burma’s borders. The Burmese military, under the direction of Generals Ne Win and Saw Maung, finances its regime by selling off Burma’s abundant natural resources, including the last remaining teak forests in the world.
In March of this year I visited Manerplaw, one of the student camps along the Thai-Burma border, to witness the conditions and to offer a workshop on nonviolent strategies for social change at “Jungle University.” Jungle University was organized by the students to keep their minds alert and connected to the outside world, about which they know very little.
Ten thousand students made their way to this border in September 1988, when their lives were threatened in a massacre that prefigured the Tiananmen Square tragedy. Approximately five thousand of these young men and women are still alive; the others have died from malaria, army shelling or capture. These students, coming from Rangoon and smaller Burmese cities, were hardly prepared for life as jungle refugees; it is through the good graces of the ethnic minorities indigenous to the jungles that the students are surviving at all. The students and the local Karen, Kachin, Mon and Shan peoples are slowly overcoming historical differences and prejudices, learning to cooperate in their common aim of overthrowing the oppressive rule of the Burmese military.
In Manerplaw Camp, I made contact with the students to gather documentation about their lives and circumstances. Their situation is appalling; it is a wonder that they are hanging on and a worry how much longer they can do so. Ninety percent suffer from repeated malaria attacks, and many die from malaria, jaundice, dysentery and other diseases of abject poverty in harsh surroundings, Malnutrition is widespread; the twice daily meals I witnessed consisted of rice, sometimes with a sauce and vegetable. There are neither blankets nor mosquito nets, and medicine and doctors are both in very short supply. Emotionally the students are homesick, isolated from all news of loved ones, deprived of books and education, constantly frightened by military bombings and attacks, and terribly alone. They are beautiful, bright young revolutionaries from all of Burma’s universities, and they are trapped in the jungle.
For the members of Burma’s many ethnic groups, fate is equally cruel. Many of them have been fighting the Burman majority for survival and autonomy since the British pulled out in 1948. Under the current military regime, the persecution has intensified so that now these groups are threatened with extinction. Their villages are under constant siege by the military: rape, pillage, crop destruction and capture into slavery are widespread.
There are few friends in the world speaking out for Burma. A small country closed to both foreign media and casual tourists for twenty-seven years can easily be forgotten. And Burma’s natural resources are an enticement that keep foreign governments closemouthed about its domestic policies. Thailand is repatriating Burmese students and ethnics who successfully escape across the border, and is supporting the dictatorship with a booming teak logging business. Japanese trawlers have fishing rights, the U.S. is drilling for oil, and there is Burmese opium, one of the highest priced commodities in the world market. Against these temptations, human rights are a small voice.
There is no question that by now the world’s governments know about this brutal dictatorship. Condemnations have been voiced from many quarters, but as yet there has been no concerted international effort at strong economic or political sanctions. Amnesty International has documented the terror, torture and repression. They, like the students and ethnics, are appealing to the world community for a clarion call for change in Burma.
The so-called “elections” in May were a farce; opposition candidates were under house arrest, students and minorities are in the jungle, half a million Rangoon citizens have been relocated to distant malaria swamps so they could not vote, and there is an intimidating military presence everywhere.
Our efforts do make a difference. In a political situation receiving so little attention, every voice counts. Change will come to Burma one day, as it comes everywhere. With the help of concerned citizens around the world, perhaps we can hasten that day.
There are many things you can do. The Buddhist Peace Fellowship accepts donations to purchase food and medicine for students in the camps [Editor’s Note: Thirty years later, this support for Burma is provided through the Clear View Project, overseen by Hozan Alan Senauke, BPF’s former executive director]; letters can be written to Burmese embassies urging amnesty for these students and the release of imprisoned opposition; letters can also be written to Thai embassies urging the government to grant sanctuary to Burmese students, and to stop trading with Burma until martial law is ended and human rights restored; governments can also be urged to ban the importation of all teakwood and seafood products originating in Burma. Currently there is such legislation pending in the Senate and House of Representatives. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Moynihan and Rep. Matsui. It is Senate Bill S 822 and House Bill HR 2578. Send letters in support of these bills to Moynihan and Matsui as well as to your own Senators and Representatives. Senate: 464 Russell Building, Washington D.C 20510. House of Representatives, 2419 Rayburn Building, Washington D.C. 20515.
For more information:
Companion articles in this issue of Inquiring Mind:
Journey into Terror, by Alan Clements
Update on Human Rights in Burma (Myanmar), by Paula Green