Refugees International Board member Michael Hawkins is currently on mission in Thailand focusing on the situation for Burmese refugees there and how the impact of the ongoing conflict inside Burma affects the stability of neighboring countries.
After visiting what the Thailand government calls the “Temporary Shelter for Burmese”—a more than ten-year-old refugee camp of 44,000 Burmese—and visiting with some newly displaced people from Burma it is apparent to me that these people have and are making huge sacrifices for democracy.
Imagine being persecuted, starved, imprisoned, beaten, raped, having your village destroyed, and your life uprooted. After all of that, imagine having to leave your country and family members. This is what these refugees have faced, and yet most of them simply hope for the day that their country has democracy so they can return home to peace.
The recent peaceful demonstrations by the monks and people in Rangoon was an effort to bring attention to the plight of the Burmese people and to encourage a move towards democracy. Certain monks and citizens who participated were targeted for arrest and have been forced to leave Myanmar. We had the honor of meeting with some of these courageous people and hearing their incredible and sobering stories. A young student and a monk told stories of peaceful marches, which were brutally broken up by the Burmese police. They and their families were threatened and interrogated. In fear for their lives, they left everything, including spouses and children, to continue to be a voice for democracy and a peaceful country.
Three individuals we spoke with were in their forties and have been involved with the democracy struggle since 1988. One has spent ten years and the other fifteen years in prison as political prisoners in Burma. They were forced to spend more than half of their time in solitary confinement where they suffered mental and physical abuse. Another has not seen his family for eighteen years. Today, they all still work with the National League for Democracy, and are committed to working for peace and democracy in Burma in hopes of returning to their homeland. How much more must they sacrifice?
This day has said to me that we, as Americans, must value and celebrate our democracy and not take it for granted. More so, we must speak out for those still within Burma working for democracy and those forced to leave and become refugees. The very core of our freedom demands we speak up for our brothers and sisters who are sacrificing so much.
By Mike Hawkins
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