Myanmar: A Long Way to Walk

By Tala Dowlatshahi

Aung San Suu Kyi's victory in the last election has indeed indicated a rapid shift in Myanmar's leadership. President Thein Sein's new policy toward democratic reform may be a fresh beginning. But women like Zoya Phan are not so optimistic. She believes the global community must stay vigilant even in the face of the government's recent actions.

"For many decades," she said, "my people have been under attack by the government. We had to run for our lives."

The UN Secretary General's recent trip to the region and his meeting with President Sein helped ease widespread global suspicion among Western nations who initially refused to ease sanctions. Yet recent reports by human rights groups suggest that Sein and his military remain hostile to ethnic minority groups including those in Zoya's community.

I met Phan, a slight woman, in Geneva a few weeks ago when she was in town to discuss the decades long human rights abuses committed by the military junta. Phan was born in Manerplaw in 1980. The region served as the headquarters for the Karen National Union (KNU) a multi-religious ethnic minority active in opposing the military regime. Phan, who is a member of the Karen, fled her country for Thailand in her early teens. Her family lived in refugee camps, which she says were very much like prison because they were not allowed to leave. Her family subsisted on very little food and basic supplies.

After spending over ten years as a refugee in Thailand, Phan sought political asylum in the United Kingdom in 2007. In 2009, she became a TED Fellow and in 2010, she was honored as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.

The author of "Little Daughter," an exile dissident story of a family torn apart by political unrest, Zoya recognizes there has been positive change recently in Myanmar, but she believes it is just the beginning of "a long, long, long way to walk". "The government in Burma," she elaborated, "is very much worried about their international image. Although the government has released some political prisoners, they are only interested in international legitimacy and in removing the economic sanctions and do not care about democracy and human rights."

Phan says the government is still committed to censoring its people. Burma ranked 169 out of 179 countries in Reporters Without Borders' press freedom index. And the non-governmental group, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) reports some 1000 cases of verified and unverified political prisoners being held by the government for opposing the rule of law by the military. In recent weeks, hundreds have been released but many are jailed with no due legal process.

Moreover the country's failure to adopt new technologies have hindered the spread of information. "Out of a population of 55 million people, only 300,000 have access to electricity, and from those, very few use the Internet" Phan said.

"People don't have computers, mobile phones are very expensive, and if they do need the Internet they go to the cafes which are very monitored by government spies."

Once a skeptic of the electoral process, Phan's is somewhat hopeful for change now that Aung San Suu Kyi has become a newly elected member of the government. But she stressed that political negotiations must continue even after the sanctions are lifted.

"If there is only a ceasefire and without political solutions, it is like pressing a pause button and not a stop button. It only tackles the symptoms of the problems, not the root causes of the problems."

Phan says she will remain active in the fight for minority rights in her country even if she is not welcome inside. She works daily to promote political awareness at the Burma Campaign in the UK and is a founding member of the Phan Foundation, a group dedicated to education and the alleviation of poverty. She believes the only way to unify Myanmar is through both political and economic reform.

Although the government of Myanmar has given the world a glimpse of their openness to democracy, Phan hopes that their desire to save face within the international community will lead to substantive and not merely cosmetic reform.