Burma reactions, dialogues continue at Whitman

Fear and heavy-handed military force has restored order to the streets of Rangoon, Myanmar, the country previously known as Burma. Just weeks after pro-democracy activists and thousands of local monks filled the streets of the city in protest, efforts to overthrow the oppressive military junta have, for now, been quelled. However, dialogue continues. Burma reactions, dialogues continue at Whitman | Illustration by Casey Roberts

On Monday, Oct. 1, Whitman College’s Global Awareness House did something that most Burmese don’t have the luxury to do: they talked politics.

“The way of life in Burma is very different from here. Politics is just not something you talk about anywhere. This has been the same situation for a long time, the fear of a lot of the people,” said Burmese student Phyo Wai Aung, whose name has been changed to protect his identity.

The Global Awareness House held a special event entitled Eye on Burma as part of their regular News and Tea Monday night programming. Students from across campus read a set of articles compiled from The Economist, The New York Times, the BBC and The Washington Post before
commencing their discussion.

Global Awareness House Resident Assistance Leor Maizel, who helped to coordinate the event, said, “In terms of the News and Tea event itself I thought it was really successful, I was really happy with the discussions that went on during News and Tea because I thought a lot of people got a chance to discuss an issue that perhaps they didn’t know a lot about … it was a chance to be educated by people that know more about it.”

Sophomore Ian Jagel, who attended Eye on Burma, said, “It was my first News and Tea that I have been to. It was a good environment to talk openly and respectfully. There were multiple viewpoints.… The conversation focused mainly on how China is in the biggest position to do something about the military junta in Burma.”

When asked whether he thought Whitman had been made aware of what was happening in Burma, Maizel said, “The events in Burma seem to have touched a chord with the student body if you ask me.… It actually kind of made me proud of the student body in a way. I guess whether or not this leads to student action is questionable, but it is also questionable what action is possible.”

Jagel said, “I think it is kind of sad that there is one week of passionate interest in a topic and then the next week it is as if it didn’t happen. There was such good momentum going into the end of last week with the Red Shirt Campaign, and then the next week there was no follow-up. I was kind of disappointed.”

Aung has felt the support of Whitman students and faculty. So far, he has received about 20 donations from students, professors and other faculty members, totaling over $600. “There has been follow up from students and friends of mine,” said Aung.

Speaking to the conditions in Myanmar now, Aung said, “I get the feeling things are still kind of tense. It has kind of gone back to what it was before, people are afraid.”

Aung is happy that Internet connection is working again. He was able to communicate via e-mail with his parents, as well as a student he taught while he was living there. “I get the feeling things are still kind of tense.”

When asked how the events of the past several weeks have affected him, Aung said, “When the protests were there I felt frustrated. A lot of people back home were dying and facing hardships much worse than mine. I was able to get a much better education than these people.”

“For a while growing up there I lost faith in my people. ‘Why are they so hard?’ [I asked], ‘Why aren’t they taking action?’” Aung said. “I found that hard to understand. It was hard for me to grasp the concept of them fully, I really respected [the protests]. That people were willing to change and willing to stand up for [his or her] own right, it was something that restored my faith in my own country.”

Aung advised that students might learn more about the conflict and Burma’s history by reading “The River of Lost Footsteps” by Thant Myint-U or “Freedom from Fear” by Aung San Suu Ski, who was elected prime minister, representing the National League of Democracy in Burma in 1990. She was placed under house arrest by the military junta in power for 12 of the past 18 years, and prevented from ever successfully leading.

Aung is still accepting donations. He anticipates that he will do more to bring awareness to campus. “I would like to get DVDs on Burma for a public showing.”

“I feel like what has changed,” said Aung, “is a refreshing of memory that the government is quite brutal.”




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