From the office of Bill Holston: An Overview of the Struggles in Burma

“The Times they Are a Changin…”

These words penned by Robert Zimmerman (better known by his pen name Bob Dylan) have always had a special meaning for those who wish for societal change. Those of us that work in the area of human rights have reason to give in to pessimism. We look at a place like Eritrea, or Somalia and despair. In 1988, the country of Burma (also known as Myanmar) was rocked by nationwide protests. These culminated in the formation by the military forms of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which we  refer to more aptly as a Military Dictatorship. In response to this pro-democracy leaders form the National League for Democracy (NLD) with Aung San Suu Kyi as general secretary. In 1989 Aung San Suu Kyi is placed under house arrest, where she remains on and off for over  15  years. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

My first encounter with the pro democracy activists in Burma. In May 2008, Burma was in the news again, as it recalled the pro democracy demonstrations of 1988. I wrote a commentary for KERA, where I said the following:

“When I think of Burma, I think about a young man I met him through my pro bono representation of applicants for Political Asylum. The young man, a youth pastor is wearing the colorful clothing of the Chin people. For simply talking to youth about their culture, he and a colleague were arrested. My client managed to escape, but his friend was tortured and executed. I remember sitting and preparing his case at a small apartment in East Dallas. We shared a meal of the very spicy Burmese food as we prepared. He was able to obtain asylum. My latest client was a 75 year old woman, slapped around by soldiers, wanting to know where her daughter was. Thankfully, these wonderful kind people are safe here now.”

My client’s  pictures adorn my new office, the office I am privileged to occupy at HRI.

1998 saw protests by Buddhist monks, who were shot on the streets. Journalists and activists were locked up. There seemed to be no end in sight. And yet, things do change. In 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from prison. And this weekend, despite some election irregularities, she was elected to a seat in Parliament. It is too early to know whether these political reforms will prevail. Burma’s military could yet crush the hopes of people. And yet, we have reason to at least hope.

I look at the cover of a Foreign Policy Magazine that has the photos of some of the worst despots on the planet. Of those pictured, Burma’s Than Shwe is no longer in control. Kim Jong Il is dead. These tyrants rule, apparently believing that they will never lease power. But, often due to the sacrifice of brave people, they do. And that should motivate us to continue to work hard, and not to give in to cynicism. Aung San Suu Kyi once said, “It is not enough merely to call for freedom, democracy and human rights. There has to be a united determination to persevere in the struggle, to make sacrifices in the name  of enduring truths, to resist the corrupting influence of desire, ill-will, ignorance and fear.”

– William O. Holston Jr.

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