Students rise up for Burmese monks
The violent suppression of monks in Myanmar — the country formerly known as Burma — was felt around the world. Whitman students joined in echoing the sentiment that resounded nationwide: Free Burma Now.
Two Burmese students, Phyo Wai Aung and Hnin Phyu Aye (whose names have been changed to protect their identities), currently attend Whitman.
“Everybody should know about the issue,” Aung said. “This is really important, because all of us who grew up in Burma are ignorant of our own history, because there are no texts about it and the media is heavily censored. We have no information about what has gone on in our country.”
The only way to learn the truth, said Aung, is to read smuggled books that the government doesn’t know about.
Part of the history to which Aung refers is the pro-democracy protests in 1988, when thousands of Burmese protestors were killed by the junta.
Aung and Aye sent e-mails to student listservs beginning Wednesday, Sept. 26. They and a growing number of other e-mailers encouraged students to wear red on Friday, Sept. 28, to show their support of the Burmese monks. They also asked students to participate in a hunger strike with them from noon on Thursday, Sept. 27, to noon the following day.
Junior Becky Avila was one of the students wearing red and fasting in support of the monks.
Avila explained how fasting gave her an outlet to show support in a time when she felt it impossible to make a concrete difference.
“Maybe I’m not using my hands, but I’m still being this vessel of spiritual support. I believe that spiritual connection is powerful and it will translate across the globe,” said Avila, who fasted again with other students on Monday.
Sophomore Neda Ansaari, who also fasted and wore red, agreed with Avila.
“The first thing about human rights is that no matter where you are, people deserve it,” Ansaari said. “Monks are being sent to prisons and local people are being tortured, questioned and detained. We should be thankful that we are living in a democratic country, and people here should support and care about the country and its people who are going through a rough time.”
Ansaari was one of approximately 50 participants in a student-led vigil on Friday, Sept. 28 outside of Cordiner Hall. First-year Lissa Erickson was one of the first students to publicly call for such a vigil.
“Basically I knew nothing about what was going on in Burma until the protests started escalating recently,” Erickson said. She was so affected by what she read about in e-mails, in the news and at the U.S. Campaign for Burma Web site that she began organizing the candlelight vigil.
Students and other attendees lit candles, read prayers and signed a red collage that Aung will send to the U.S. Campaign For Burma.
Senior Amber Giroux also helped organize the vigil.
“The vigil was a time for people to come together and show support for each other and also honor the people who have been struggling for freedom and democracy in Burma, past and present,” Giroux said.
Giroux, who is good friends with Aung, said that there were multiple reasons for her involvement: “As a global citizen I feel I should do whatever I can: even if it’s something very small: to try to change the way things are and have been for so long in Burma.” Giroux, who has had some exposure to Buddhism, added that she was particularly offended by the regimes’ treatment of the peaceful monks.
Giroux mentioned the quotation of Aung San Suu Kyi, a Burmese pro-democracy activist who has been under house arrest for 12 of the last 18 years: “Please use your liberty to promote ours.”
“While we have these arbitrary divisions of nations and states, we’re all living on this world together. Whether we like it or not, we have to live with people who are different than us, and we have to make compromises and find peace,” Giroux said.
Giroux organized a march on Sunday, Sept. 30, from 11 a.m. to noon. About 15 students and faculty members participated, marching from Reid Campus Center to the Walla Walla Farmers’ Market and around various other local businesses. The group carried signs that read “Free Burma,” “Peace in Burma” and “Save the Monks.” The group, who chanted these messages as well, were generally met with support by the public.
“These things oftentimes get covered in the media for a couple days and then are just gone: but they’re not really gone for the people,” Giroux said, explaining that she just hopes that support Americans exhibit will keep the issue sharp in the minds of the country.
Many speculate that the protests are being successfully suppressed and are nearing an end. Aye, a resident of Rangoon, feels conflicted about this.
“I don’t even know how to feel. Personally, I feel like the protests should be going on because many people have died, many people have been arrested and many people have been injured just to make changes in the government system. Without anything changing, what they did is not worth anything. On the other hand, I also feel bad [because] if the protests go on, many more people will be killed, injured and arrested,” Aye said.
“I don’t know if I should be happy it’s over or pray for it to continue.”
Neither Aung nor Aye has yet been able to make contact with their families, as Internet access to Myanmar has been cut off and telephone access is being monitored. However, Aung was able to learn from his brother, who is also attending college in the U.S., that while his uncle has been beaten, his parents are safe “for now.” Those two words hold a mixture of relief and fear for Aung.
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