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27 September 2007

The world must act for Burma

Zoya Phan, who spent 10 years in a Thai refugee camp after the Burmese military attacked her village

By Zoya Phan

The tables are turned. A regime that rules through fear now fears for its own survival. For 45 years the people of Burma have suffered under military rule. Now they are demanding freedom, with the biggest street protests seen in the country since 1988. Even threats of action, and shooting at monks with bullets and tear gas, has failed to suppress the protests. But this is one of the most brutal regimes in the world, and it won’t give up without a fight.

We know from experience that the regime has opened fire on peaceful protesters. The current regime came to power on the back of a massacre in 1988 that left at least 3,000 civilians dead. In addition, the UN has accused the regime of breaking the Geneva Convention for their deliberate targeting of civilians in attacks on ethnic minorities. They are capable of anything. I know that from personal experience. I was 14 years old when the Burmese attacked my village, opening fire without warning.

Now 400,000 monks are pitched against the regime’s 400,000 soldiers, guns against begging bowls, with the hopes and support of a population that has suffered increasing poverty and oppression under military rule.

The protests were sparked by an increase in fuel prices of up to 500 percent. In a country where the majority of people live in poverty, and can barely afford to feed their family, let alone pay for basic medicines if they fall ill, it was a step too far.

The regime, increasingly out of touch in its new capital, Nay-Pyi-Daw, miscalculated the mood of the people. They also failed to realise the extent to which democracy activists have developed networks to circumvent controls on the flow of information, and were able to get news out to the international community.

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Nor did they anticipate the level of organisation that the monks alliance had built, how they had learnt from previous uprisings. The leadership has remained largely anonymous and under cover, stopping the regime from ‘beheading’ the movement by imprisoning the organisers.

This, combined with an international community that finally seems willing to take on the regime with UN action and targeted sanctions, gives Burmese exiles like myself hope that our suffering may soon be over. But much still depends on how the international community responds. They must translate words into action, providing maximum support to those risking their lives on the streets of Burma.

Zoya Phan, a 26-year-old exiled Burmese political activist, is an ethnic Karen, escaped from the Burmese regime’s ongoing war against the Karen ethnic people. 12 years ago when she was just 14 years old, she was forced to leave her home, village and country because of the military regime offensive against ethnic Karen in Burma. As a refugee, she lived on the Thai-Burmese border for many years and spent her teenager live in the refugee camps. Now she is campaigning for human rights and democracy for her homeland as a Campaigns Officer with the Burma Campaign UK

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