Talk by Burmese ex-prisoner of conscience Ko Aung

Manvers Street Baptist Church on 13 October at 7.30pm.

Ko will be talking about his terrifying, horrific torture and imprisonment by the authorities in Burma and his more recent work as a solicitor and a lecturer in human rights law:

I am an activist, not a victim. I want to restore dignity, justice, freedom, equality and peace to Burma. That’s why we have been fighting for democracy; we give our lives to achieve it. So many people have died for it.
 

Ko will describe the struggle for peace and justice in Burma – a struggle which is far from won despite the publicised concessions such as the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. Ko is now working hard to educate other refugees and activists in the hope that it will contribute to a renewed Burmese society.

After Ko’s talk he will be joined on a panel by:

> Robert Gordon, CMG, OBE and Ambassador to Burma 1995-99 and currently Chairman of Prospect of Burma and President of the Britain Burma Society
> Steve Bradley, future Lib Dem Parliamentary Candidate for Bath

Please join us to hear this inspiring speaker discuss activism in Burma and in exile in the U.K.

Suggested donation of £5 to suppport Amnesty International.

For further information please contact Mark or Wendy at Bath Amnesty on info@bathamnesty.co.uk

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Bath Amnesty gives appeal money to Mao Tao clinic

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Mao Tao clinic is situated in the town of Mae Sot on the Thai – Burma border. It provides health services to displaced Burmese, ethnic people and refugees. Mao Tao clinic provides life saving treatment for both short term illnesses and chronic diseases like HIV/AIDS.

Thanks to your generosity we were able to give a donation to the clinic and continue to help the displaced people of Burma. Thank you!

Posted in Bath Amnesty visit Thai Burma border - February 2013 | 1 Comment

“Nothing about us, without us”

“The fear is palpable”

Chris Clifford, Field Co-ordinator for Thai-Burma Border Consortium

Despite the declining standards in food and education, and the lack of freedom the refugees have to lead fulfilled lives, they remain grateful for the refugee camps. The camps, for all their pitfalls, offer the refugees the one thing we all crave as human beings – safety and security for the people we love. The refugees all share painful memories of the Burmese Military- the “Tatmadaw” – of rape, murder and degradation of their culture. In the refugee camps, their loved ones and their culture, are safe from the Tatmadaw. But for how long?

Since Aung San Suu Syi’s release and government reforms, there have been rumours that the camps will close down in the next few years and the refugees will be repatriated back to Burma. This fills many refugees with nothing short of terror at going back “inside” as they call it. With daily reports emerging about the Tatmadaw’s continued attack on ethnic minorities, people are understandably still very afraid.

The UN, which are supposed to be coordinating the repatriation have cut out the refugees from talks on their return “home”. Indeed, it appears that the only talks they have conducted are with the Burmese government. The ethnic minorities have only heard rumours and have not been consulted in the process. As history has taught us, repatriating refugees without their knowledge or consent has led to disastrous consequences…

Please watch this short documentary by the Burmese Partnership “Nothing about us, without us”. It tells of the refugees fears and the UN’s lack of coordination, knowledge and empathy about the needs of the refugees throughout the Thai – Burma border.

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Mae La refugee camp

Mae La is the largest of 9 refugee camps situated on the Burma-Thai border. The camps are funded by the UN, Western governments and various NGOs. Mae La is home to around 50,000 registered and unregistered Burmese refugees- a large majority belonging to the Karen tribe. The Karen are one of Burma’s many ethnic minorities who are largely from the resource rich states situated in the East of Burma. Since Burma’s independence from the British in 1948, the Karen have fallen victim to Burma’s repressive and brutal dictatorship. Thousands of villages in the Karen state have been razed to the ground, land has been confiscated and mass rape, torture and murder have been the Burmese Military’s trusty and effective tools. Many who didn’t die- fled for their lives and have become displaced- “a stateless people.” 150,000 of which are today living in the refugee camps.

We arrive at the camp at 9am and our Burmese guide is a friendly guy called “Saw Cool”. A digital whizz who used his skills to document protests against the Junta in Rangoon. He decided to leave after it was clear he was being followed by the Military Intelligence Agency. Saw Cool used to teach Computer Science in the “Leadership and Management Training College” (LMTC), one of the many schools and colleges which have been established on the camp over the years. He now works in the Karen Education Department which is situated in Mae Sot. He’s still very close to the kids at the camp and this is clear as he shows us around.

As part of our tour, Saw Cool takes us to the college’s library and this is where we meet one of his students, the charismatic “Chiang.”

Chiang

Chiang and Angelique in Mae La refugee camp

Chiang is sitting in the library with some friends cutting out some words in the Karen language on a piece of paper. We ask what he is doing and he tells us it is part of a display for Karen National Day. Saw Cool says “This is Chiang, he speaks excellent English.” Chiang looks up with a mischievous smile and says, “oh no Saw, you flatter me!” His English is of course – excellent.

Chiang decides to join our tour around the camp and tells me about his worries for his school.

“I don’t want to talk about my past. I want to talk about the future of my school. Since 2011 we have had huge funding cuts. The salary for our teachers is very low. It’s difficult for them to live on what they earn.”

Chiang is Karen and fled to the camp in 2008. He has used the past 5 years to educate himself and improve his English. However difficult his past must have been, Chiang has chosen to focus the future of his school. He’s clearly a guy that doesn’t look back, only forwards.

The cuts in funding combined with high commodity prices have created a scaling down on rations. The rations consist of rice, fish paste, oil and salt. The most basic of Asian diets which isn’t meeting nutritional needs.

“Since the political changes in the last few years, a lot of the money is being focused in Burma instead of the camps. We feel forgotten,”  he says.

The LMTC’s Arts and Science classroom is a giant room without a partition. There are chairs but no desks.  Of course, when we meet the students they are incredibly polite, friendly, giggly and just like Chiang, so grateful for the opportunity to learn.

Saw Cool is using his digital skills to create lessons for the students so they won’t need a teacher and can learn from the computer alone. Knowing what I know as a former teacher myself, no digital lesson can replace the presence and skills of a dedicated teacher in a classroom. It is hard to look into the faces of these bright and eager faces of Chiang and his fellow students and know that they don’t have enough teachers and resources to guide and develop their skills and talent.

Students at Mae La refugee camp

Students at Mae La refugee camp

After saying goodbye to Chiang and Saw Cool, we paid a visit to the Karen Education Department and gave them a donation. Thanks to the generous donars from Bath, we were able to give the Karen Education Department money to keep their vital work alive. Thank you again to everyone who donated to our appeal.

If you are interested in learning more about how you can help the students at Mae La Refugee camp, please email us at info@bathamnesty.org or visit the Karen Education Department website http://www.kareneducation.org/index.php/what-we-do.

Wendy giving donation to Karen Education Department

Wendy giving donation to Karen Education Department

Thank you.

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Former Burmese Political Prisoners tell their story to Bath Amnesty members

“Nothing is more revealing about the situation of human rights in a country than the existence of political prisoners. They embody the denial of the most basic freedoms essential to human kind, such as freedom of opinion and assembly.”

Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro

Former United Nations Special Rapporteur
on the situation of Human Rights in Burma

Even though I am free, I am not

During our time on the border of Thailand and Burma – Wendy and I paid a visit and gave a donation to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners of Burma (AAPPB) on behalf of the Bath Amnesty group. The AAPPB is an organization which supports political prisoners who are both inside and outside of prison and also supports their families. During our time at the AAPPB, we met two former Burmese political prisoners – “Zulu” and Noble. As Burma has been a long standing campaign for the Bath Amnesty group, and all our members have dedicated so much time and energy in writing letters to free Burmese political prisoners, it was a huge honour for us to meet with Zulu and Noble and learn about their experiences.

“Zulu” (the alias she goes by to protect her identity) and Noble both have the warm, welcoming, friendly disposition that we have come to love about the Burmese people. As we sit together in the sunny courtyard of the AAPPB and enjoy their warm and welcoming smiles, it’s hard to tell they have both suffered the might of Burma’s brutal military dictatorship in the not so distant past. As we soon learn, these former political prisoners, our human rights warriors, paid a painful price for standing up for what they believe in. Here are their stories:

Zulu’s story

Born and grown up in Rangoon, it is easy to see that Zulu would have excelled in anything she did, if she had had the chance. She has long, black hair and big, friendly eyes. As well as being very beautiful, she carries an air of intelligence and speaks English fluently.

“I was studying Physics at Rangoon University. I enjoyed learning and I had lots of friends … but this was a dark time in Burma’s past. It was 1998. Many students were protesting against the Junta… I wanted to support them.”

Zulu was supporting the student demos and the (then) illegal organization “All Burma Federation of Students Union.” (ABFSU).The demos were protesting against the lack of political representation for the people of Burma and the Junta’s refusal to acknowledge the legitimate winner of the 1990 elections- Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD party. Zulu took on a supporting role with the ABFSU. She recorded donations that come in for the party and attended meetings with party members. On the 24th August 1998, Zulu was arrested by the Burmese Military Intelligence Unit.

After she was arrested she was interrogated for 3 days. A well documented method of torture used by the Junta was sleep deprivation. Zulu was made stay awake for 72 hours. They humiliated her, insulted her and her family. They were aggressive and accusatory. They questioned her character for “associating with men”.

She was kept in solitary confinement while awaiting “trial”. It took place on 30th December 1998. It was conducted inside Insein prison in Rangoon. There was no judge, or jury, only members of the Intelligence unit. She was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment under the “Emergency Provision Act.”

Zulu’s first two years in prison “were horrible.” She missed her family. She wasn’t allowed to see them in the lead up to the trial, and after sentencing she was only allowed one visit a month. Her Mum and Dad – “her bedrock” – would visit her every month. Tragically many other relatives didn’t visit. Political prisoners are often ostracized by their families for fear of association. Zulu experienced the pain of family members not coming to see her. Time in the prison passed slowly. She was allowed only 15 minutes for washing her body and her clothes every day- the rest of the time she remained in her cell. No books, no distractions.

Zulu cites the things that kept her going. “Visits from the Red Cross were so helpful. I had no idea I had rights as a prisoner. They informed me I had rights. After a few years in prison I was allowed to read religious books. I learnt about meditation and this helped me a lot.”

In 2003, Zulu’s mother became ill. Despite appealing to the authorities for an early release so she could see her mother, Zulu’s mother died.

Zulu becomes very quiet and is clearly gazing into her past. After a brief silence, I comment, “That must have been an incredibly difficult time for you.” Zulu’s warm brave smile turns into tears as she remembers that time in her life. Tears flood down her cheeks and the pain of losing her mother and not being able to say goodbye are painfully evident. “My father also died 8 months after I was released. I didn’t get to spend those years with them when I was in prison. I missed them so much. I can never make up that time with them now.” The tears keep falling but there is no bitterness with Zulu, only sadness of losing the two people most dear to her. Political prisoners are our human rights warriors – yet in this moment we realized how important it is to remember the personal pain they endure for standing up for their principles- including after they have left prison. The anguish they suffer does not end when they are freed. It is just the beginning for them to put the pieces of their life back together and suffer the loss of the years they were in prison.

Zulu was released in June 2004. 4 years early. I asked her why she was released. “International pressure. Thanks to organizations like Amnesty International. Your letters work. They really work. The Junta knew that you knew about us. We were not forgotten. You didn’t forget us. They couldn’t just let us die.”

In exile now, she is far away from the city where she grew up and the friends she left behind. Yet she cannot return for fear of being arrested again.

“Things are getting better in Burma, but we are not a democracy. There are still 240 political prisoners and 125 are awaiting trial. Burma is not free. Until it is truly free and safe, I cannot return home.”

Noble Aye’s story 

“Noble Aye” is not an alias. It is the real name of the another political prisoner we are hounoured to interview. Like Zulu, Noble is also a very beautiful woman! She is tiny and petit- no more than 4.8 ft tall! She carries a distinctive air of “don’t mess with me.”  Yet her smile is as warm and welcoming as Zulu’s and she is eager to tell us her story. Zulu sits with us in Noble’s interview and translates for some areas that are difficult for her to express in English.

“My mother was a member of the NLD”, Noble begins. The NLD stands for the National League for Democracy. It is the party that rightfully won the 1990 elections. Their famous leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was put under house arrest after the elections and was released in early 2011.

Noble was arrested in 1998, on 25th September, one month after Zulu. Noble had been distributing an NLD handbook, which documented the Junta’s brutal crackdown on the 1996 student demonstrations. Noble and Zulu both laugh as Noble recalls her arrest and first imprisonment. “I shouted at the Intelligence officers! I told them off. I was very angry.” Zulu laughs and adds, “I think they were afraid of her!”

Noble was sentenced to 42 years in prison. On four counts of “5J” an Act which prevents “Public Mischief.” They both smile at this.

Noble spent 7 years in the same prison as Zulu, in the cell next door. They were not allowed to talk to each other in the whole 7 years. Wendy asks “Did you find a way to communicate?” They give each other a mischievous smile. “We whispered.”

“Amnesty International put a lot of pressure for my release. The Junta released me 35 years early.” Another big smile.

After she was released in 2005, she immediately became the activist she was 7 years previously. Clearly, without a moments hesitation.

“After I was released in 2005, I joined the ’88 Generation student group. We were campaigning for the other political prisoners to be released. I was free, but what about them? I was very angry and very sorry for the political prisoners who hadn’t yet been released. I was angry and sorry for the people of Burma. I wanted things to change.”

Noble was arrested again and this time sentenced to 11 years imprisonment. She served 5 years of her sentence and was freed in January 2012. Her early release was again due to international pressure.

In solidarity, In defiance

Noble and Zulu sum up what Amnesty International is all about about. In absolute defiance and fearlessness of the dictatorship, Noble and Zulu stood up for what they believed in and paid the price by being imprisoned and losing their liberty.

When Noble was released, she didn’t hesitate a moment to start campaigning again. In solidarity with the hundreds of political prisoners who still hadn’t been released. Their selflessness is an overwhelming, humbling, stark reminder of why we meet every month to write letters – letters which work.

We must continue to campaign and fight for the 240 political prisoners who are still languishing in Burmese prisons today and the further 125 who are awaiting trial. Burma will not be free until the last political prisoner is free – join us in making that a reality.

If you would like to join the Bath Amnesty group and write letters for the freedom of political prisoners in Burma like Zulu and Noble, please contact us at info@bathamnesty.org.uk .

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5 questions with Muna Hassan

In the lead up to our event for Elimination of Violence against women’s day, we have interviewed Muna Hassan, a committed member of Integrate Bristol and a knowlegeable, outspoken FGM activist. Muna is 18 years old and is attending St Brendans college in Bristol.

What is FGM?

Female genital mutilation (FGM) involves cutting away part or all of a woman’s sexual organs.  In the most extreme form, the internal and external labia are removed and the flesh is closed leaving only a small opening for urine and menstrual blood. In the UK, girls are more likely to be subjected to type I, which involves removing all or part of the clitoris and the prepuce.  As it is not taken seriously by many in positions of authority, thousands of girls are being mutilated each year, and no one seems to be protecting them.

How did you become involved with campaigning against FGM?

We became involved through the work of the local charity Integrate Bristol.  A small group of us had started talking about FGM – we knew what it was, but hadn’t really thought about the implications of the practice, nor about the horrendous consequences for those subjected to it.  We wanted to do something, but didn’t know what or how to approach it.  Traditionally, we are not supposed to talk about FGM – it is taboo.  But as a group, we grew in courage and now, most of us are outspoken campaigners!

There were only four of us when we started, but four years on, there are now more than eighty in our group and boys have joined as well.  So far, we have: written poetry;  written and produced ‘Why?’, a drama-doc for radio which was featured on radio 4’s Woman’s Hour; written and produced ‘Silent Scream’, a docu-drama which has since won several awards and is used as a teaching resource internationally and we have planned, organised and hosted a national conference.  Currently we are working on a stage production about VAWG – it’s not as depressing as it sounds, actually it’s quite funny in places! We’re hoping to have the play performed at the Bristol Old Vic next summer, followed by a panel discussion.   We’re doing lots of campaigning, meeting some amazing people and also some not very nice ones.  Above all, we are learning that we have a voice, that people listen and that we really can make a difference.

What is the situation here in the UK?

It’s very complicated. Everyone will agree that FGM is wrong, that it’s an abuse of human rights and that it’s child abuse.  However much they talk about it and agree that it’s wrong, policy makers have yet to implement effective policies that will really protect girls. They are so frightened of losing votes, or being accused of racism, that nothing truly effective is done.  If we followed the French model, many girls would be protected.  As an example, all girls, regardless of race, should be examined up to school age. It’s not only about FGM – sexual abuse, infections and many other issues could be detected earlier if everyone accepted that women have vaginas – and that vaginas are nothing to be ashamed or frightened of!

In my school, because of the work we have done, young people – not just girls – are able to talk openly about FGM. They are not fearful, or ashamed.  Our work has had a huge impact on the young people of Bristol.  Of course there are people who oppose our work – somebody even tried very hard to block the showcasing of our film Silent Scream.  It was the police, the Safeguarding Nurse and above all, our mothers, who made sure that the Premiere went ahead.  There are now lots of us and more and more people are supporting our work so we aren’t afraid anymore. The work we do should be replicated in schools around the country – if PSHE were statutory, it would be a lot easier.  Education is the only way you can change the views of the next generation of mothers.

What is the situation compared with other counties in Europe?

Sadly, the UK is far behind other European countries in terms of safeguarding girls from undergoing FGM.  It all boils down to a misguided political correctness, the fear of losing votes and that dreaded word “racist”.  The irony is that by ignoring FGM, there really is a situation of institutionalised racism.  Racism born out of cowardice.  Whatever their race, every girl should be protected.

What do we need to do to change things?

Firstly, make PSHE statutory and make FGM safeguarding procedures part of the Ofsted criteria.  I also believe FGM should be included in Health and Social Care courses from KS4 onwards.  Even in our school, there are girls studying Health and Social Care, who hope to become nurses or midwives, and they still believe FGM is acceptable or desirable.  In that course Child Protection is taught – all types of abuse you can think of are discussed, but FGM is ignored.   To be honest, my teacher had no idea what FGM was when I asked him.  That is totally unacceptable.

Also, all medical professionals need to be able to recognise the different types of FGM – we held a national, three-stranded conference at Bristol University in July, and there were a few doctors who didn’t even know that FGM happened to girls in this country.  We desperately need accurate statistics on prevalence because those who want us to silence us claim that FGM doesn’t happen. We know it does – girls talk! Reliable, admissible statistics can only be provided by hospitals – if these figures were made available, the government would be ashamed and would have to do something.  So, to summarise, education, safeguarding and healthcare.. Oh and for our politicians to “grow a pair”!

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In solidarity with Malala

“I am Malala”

We know the story well now. A courageous 14 year old Pakistani girl speaks out and demands her right to an education. Her weapons are books and her enemies carry guns… the odds were stacked against her yet she remained bravely defiant:

“I don’t mind if I have to sit on the floor at school. All I want is education.”

On Oct 10th Malala was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman and left for dead.

Malala had blogged for the BBC during the Taliban’s rule in her homeland – the Swat Valley in Pakistan. Her blog describes how the Taliban blew up hundreds of girls schools and how they banned music and dancing. In the video below you can see Malala being interviewed with her father, and her breaking down into tears. “All I want is an education” she says.

Malala was flown to England after the attack and she is now recovering well in a hospital in Birmingham.

Her story has galvanised women and men across the world to make a stand and today, 10th November, is now Internationally recognised as “Malala Day”. A day which aims to get the 34 million girls who are denied an education because of their gender- into schools and learning.

Elimination of Violence Against women and girls 

The brutal and violent attempt on Malala’s life shows us why November 25th, Elimination of Violence against women day, is so important.

Girls across the globe are fighting for the most basic and fundamental rights over their own bodies, rights to freedom of movement, rights over their reproductive organs, rights to an education and their right to live a life free from violence.

Bath Amnesty are holding an event on November 24th “Funk Soul Sister: A night of boogie for sisters everywhere” to raise money for both Amnesty International and Integrate Bristol – two charities who remain committed to ending violence against women and girls.

The following video is from http://educationenvoy.org/ Please watch and find out more about a young girl who has inspired a generation to stand up against injustice.

In solidarity with Malala, join us and make a stand!

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