Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Human Rights Day: Focus on Aung San Suu Kyi

Today is Human Rights Day. Unfortunately, angry homosexuals want to hijack today to continue the protest over Proposition 8 in California. Some have called for people (gay or straight) who are against Proposition 8 (making gay marriages illegal in California) to "call in gay" to their workplaces. And then do what, exactly?!?

I'm concerned that the term "Human Rights" might become synonymous with gay rights issues. It's such a broader issue and I'd hate to see it marginalized that way. In college, I majored in International Politics, with a focus on human rights. Since adolescence, my heroes have been dissidents: Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Desmond Tutu, and Aung San Suu Kyi. Human rights is a passion of mine and I'd love to be an activist in this field. I even wanted to work for the Human Rights Council (or is it Human Rights Commission?)...until I found out that it was pretty much an exclusively gay rights organization.

The co-opting of the term for their own agenda is doing a disserve to the term "human rights" across the board. Gay rights is only a subset of the much larger category of human rights. What this means is that human rights activists can't afford to focus exclusively on gay issues or even women's issues. Activists must focus on gaining human equality across the board, without regard to race, gender, orientation, religion, caste/social class, age, or other category people use to treat a minority as "less than." Human rights is about justice for the people of Darfur, Burma, Bolivia; for women who work in sweatshops under near slavery conditions on the island of Saipan; for children forced into gangs or military units in Liberia; for those who dared to vote for the opposition party in Zimbabwe or Burma.

So, for this Human Rights Day...I'm going to focus on Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma. In 1991, she won the Nobel Peace Prize. The previous year, the military junta that rules Burma (called State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC for short) held an election that they didn't even think they needed to steal. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won a huge victory (over 80% if I remember correctly). SLORC never honoured the results and promptly arrested her. Over the years, she has lived off and on under house arrest.

Who is Aung San Suu Kyi? She is the daughter of a well-loved Burmese General named Aung San who helped Burma achieve independence from Great Britain. She was educated at schools in India and England. She married an Englishman (Michael Aris) and had two sons. They all lived in England until she returned to Burma in 1988 to care for her elderly mother. That was the year of the student uprisings, which the military regime brutally cracked down on. In 1989, in a huge crowd at Dannabyu, soldiers pointed guns at Aung San Suu Kyi and told her not to take another step. People who witnessed the event claim that her loving and calm presence was such that she was able to continue moving gracefully without consequence. It was a moment of true power and one could say that it was the moment she became THE leader of the National League for Democracy. U2 even wrote a beautiful song about her and that moment where she "walked on" despite the threats not to.

In 1987 and 1988, I had a penpal in Burma named Candy Tet Tun. Her name was in the Armed Forces newspaper when I lived in Germany (they often featured a penpal request section, with most of the people requesting penpals being women from the Phillippines who love to cook). I wrote because I wanted penpals from as many different parts of the world as possible (I had penpals in Turkey, France, Germany, Morocco, Great Britain, Nigeria, and the Philippines). My mom is from Thailand and often swam across the Mekong River into Laos as a girl. She speaks a Lao dialect of Thai. But she knew very little about Burma, Thailand's other neighbour. Growing up, I was always curious about these two countries. If you look at the map, the shape of Thailand and Burma are similar (rounded or oval body with a narrow neck of land on the bottom--like a mushroom). Even their alphabet system is unique...similar looking but unreadable to the citizen of the neighbouring country. The cultures are similar as well (both Thailand and Burma have the big water festival in the spring, when people carry around buckets of water to throw on other people).

It's fascinating that two countries can almost mirror one another yet maintain unique differences. Like Burma, Thailand has a government run by the military with coups occurring on a regular basis (including last month). The difference is, Thailand has a King (who I think is the longest serving monarch in the world) and a functioning parliamentary system. Burma is full on military dictatorship. The standard of living between Burma and Thailand is probably as severe as the standard of living between Mississippi and Hawai'i.

Anyhow, I stopped hearing from my penpal Candy Tet Tun in 1988. I still have all the letters I received from her. Many college students died during the student uprisings in Rangoon in 1988 that I wonder if she was among them. One of the great mysteries in my life. She was a cute and intelligent young lady. I think she was about the same age as me, even though I was in high school and she was in college.


I didn't think much more about Burma until 1995, when a shipmate wanted to travel to D.C. with me in the summer. He was kind of new on board my ship and had transferred from the Bethesda Naval Hospital. He wanted to visit his girlfriend, who was a Burmese lady. So, that vacation in D.C. in the summer of 1995 really set a few things in motion for me. (1) I knew that I wanted to live in D.C. someday; and (2) Asian women can be attractive to me. I know it sounds weird for me--half Asian, half caucasian--to say that I generally don't find Asian women attractive, so I need to qualify it. I'm not attracted to the quiet, submissive stereotype that a lot of men find attractive in Asian women. I've often cringed in the Navy when I heard guys demean Asian women as though they were little more than cute, submissive little sex servants. I've dated a couple Asian women, but it didn't work because I love opinionated women who aren't afraid to speak their minds. I'm also attracted to extroverted women. Since I'm introverted, I need to date and marry a woman who is a little bit more extroverted than me to bring that side out in me (Jenet in D.C. was one such lady who did that and I loved being around her and how I felt around her).

My shipmate's girlfriend happened to be an intelligent and opinionated Burmese lady. She wasn't shy about expressing her opinions. The few days we hung out (including rowing a boat in a section of the Potomac River), I found myself falling for her. One thing I most remember about her was when I had used the term "Oriental" to refer to Asian people (because that's a word my parents used and I thought nothing of it). Well, she let me have it! She said that it was derogatory, for carpets can be referred to as "Oriental" but not people. She also said that we don't go around calling white Europeans and Americans as "Occidentals." Point taken. Now, whenever I hear someone use the term "Oriental" to refer to an Asian person, I actually cringe. It's as antiquated as the term "Negro."

The second thing this Burmese lady educated me on was Aung San Suu Kyi, whom I actually hadn't heard of before that point. Since then, I've bought a few books and have read them to learn about this remarkable lady, who is often compared to Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela and even Martin Luther King, Jr.

Because three is an odd number, the shipmate and his girlfriend invited her cousin along, who didn't know English well and was visiting from Burma. It was a bit awkward since she was shy and quiet (the stereotype of Asian women) and I was more interested in the extroverted and opinionated Americanized Burmese lady.

A few months later, the shipmate lost my respect when he picked up a stripper at a club, even though he was still in a relationship with the Burmese lady. Yeah, his new stripper girlfriend had a great body...but who could beat the intelligence of his girlfriend? I had her number at the time and thought about calling. Another shipmate asked me why I didn't. All I could think was that I didn't want to be with a woman who had been with him. I'm weird like that. I felt bad for her, though. She deserved a lot better than him.

By the time I was back in D.C. in 2000, I had lost her contact info and didn't even remember her name. All I remember is how she educated me about various things and I have a photograph of her and her cousin somewhere. I wish I could meet a woman of her calibre here in Portland. I've seen many guys roll their eyes whenever they hear a woman expressing her opinions on political issues, but I get smitten. I'm just attracted to intelligence, and I'd never throw away a relationship with an intelligent woman just for an affair with a stripper. When I told the shipmate what an idiot he was, he replied: "you just don't understand until you're faced with that choice." To me, strippers are a dime a dozen. An intelligent woman with an international background is a keeper.


It is my deepest wish to see Burma become democratic soon. I would love to see Aung San Suu Kyi become Prime Minister of Burma. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had met Suu Kyi and said some great things about her. First Lady Laura Bush is also a fan of Suu Kyi and spoke earlier this year (or was it last year?) about the situation in Burma.

Honestly, my respect for George W. Bush would have increased if he had issued a military invasion of Burma to overthrow the ruling military regime and help transition the country to the rightful government of the National League for Democracy. Had he done that, I would've supported the war and possibly volunteered for that mission. If he meant what he said that the U.S. is to help bring democracy to other nations, why not Burma? It's the one place GUARANTEED where people will throw flowers at the feet of the liberators (the U.S. military). They've been oppressed so long, they truly need our help.

But, like Darfur, Burma does not have any oil reserves, so thus why Bush doesn't care about bringing democracy to them as he claims to for Iraq (he's such a bad liar). In 1999 and 2000, he criticized the Clinton Administration's "peacekeeping missions" in Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, and even Somalia (which his father committed troops to after losing the 1992 election). To conservatives, military action to prevent genocide or to restore democracy is WRONG, but military action to help corporations establish monopolies in Banana Republics or to gain natural resources in countries with rogue dictators...yeah, that's okay! It shows a consistency with their philosophical mindset. Material items matter more than humans. Oil is worth more than the life of a Burmese monk.

It is for situations such as these that I wish the United Nations had it's own standing military to respond more effectively to crises around the world. I know some paranoids will complain about "one world government", but we have to rethink our priorities. It is absolutely moral and just to bring democracy to Burma through military means. I'd love to see a worldwide coalition committed to just that.

The people of Burma have suffered for far too long. It is time we examine the reasons why we are willing to commit troops to some areas and not others. I'm not a complete pacifist, for I believe some wars are just. And I'm from the Clinton international interventionist school of military usage.

May God continue to guide and bless Aung San Suu Kyi, who is my favourite political dissident these days. She is beautiful, intelligent, graceful, spiritual, and a shining example of the power of kindness. I truly wish I could meet a woman my age who shares her qualities. She serves as a great inspiration on how to be a compassionate and kind human. Burma, and the world truly needs her kind of leadership in these uncertain times.

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