Students do their part for Burma

TORONTO (CUP) — Demonstrators in Toronto expressed their support for ongoing pro-democracy demonstrators in Burma. Now, they said, they need to get their messages of support inside the isolated South Asian country, also called Myanmar.
At the Sept. 27 demonstration at Toronto city hall, organizers said that they need to let Burmese citizens know that they have international support.
Ulla Laidlaw graduated from the University of Guelph in 2006 and spent the following year living along the Thailand-Burma border. She became involved in the pro-democracy movement then and is still in contact with many of the friends she made.
“We’re trying to develop some initiatives to get the support inside Burma,” she said, noting that a number of people are distributing flyers and pamphlets in Burma’s urban centres, encouraging the demonstrations to continue.
“So we’re thinking about having photos of our rallies and sending them in that way,” Laidlaw said. “We don’t just want to write the general to pressure the general, we want to write to the people to tell them that the world is supporting them,” she said.
The advent of the internet and global communications, said one organizer, is what is making this demonstration so different from those that have preceded it.
Paul Copeland founded the Toronto Burma Roundtable, an advocacy group, in 1990. He said that there are significant differences between the current demonstrations in Burma and the 1988 protests in which the military killed more than 3,000 civilians.
“One of the reasons the movement is so strong this time is because the images are coming out,” said Copeland, arguing that images need to be sent back to show the international support.
“If they know that there’s international support for them, it helps, it helps give them courage to continue on. It’s going to take huge courage for them to continue the demonstration,” Copeland said.
Other demonstrators conceptualized the protest differently.
NDP MP Olivia Chow spoke to demonstrators, calling upon Canada to divest from any company that supports Burma’s military rulers.
“Put pressure on the Canadian government to say to places like china and India to stop shipping arms and mediate,” she said into a megaphone. She also called upon Canadian mining companies to stop operations in Burma.
Copeland, however, feels that with the Canadian government’s lackluster track record on Burma, it’s up to the private sector to make a difference.
“The Canadian government has been verbally great and actively useless,” he said, noting that Canada’s economic sanctions are non-existent while the US continues to strengthen theirs.
Copeland said that Canada’s universities, with their investment power, have an ability to influence the outcome of the demonstrations. He cited a protest against Pepsi Co. in the early 1990s which resulted in that company’s operations being removed from Burma.
“That was ultimately hugely successful but it only happened when Pepsi lost a couple of contracts at Universities,” Copeland said.
Copeland also pointed to the successes of consumer boycotts helping to overthrow South African apartheid.
But for now, as the military government continues to rattle its sabers, the majority of demonstrators simply hoped to minimize bloodshed.
“Budhhism teaches us peace. Buddha never teaches to kill others. Burma is a Buddhist country,” said one Buddhist monk at the rally. “Please wake up and try to understand and forgive each other.”
Copeland agreed that this is really the only way forward. Simply overthrowing the military rulers will not work, he said.
“The question is what kind of transition can they arrange,” he said. “If the less senior members of the military actually get rid of the thugs who are there, and start having some dialog with the National League for Democracy, they could very well form some kind of interim government.”
Copeland said that Aung San Suu Kyi, the winner of the 1990 election who has been under house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years, has enough support to lead the country.
“She is a sufficiently strong and popular figure that she, I think, could hold the country together,” Copeland said. “Having the military on side would actually be a good idea.”
In the mean time, Canadians need to show the peaceful demonstrators in Burma that the world is standing with them.
“From filming, emailing, and letting them know,” Chow said. “They will feel the solidarity.”
Burma has been under military rule since a military coup in 1962. It has been under one form of military government or another ever since.
In 1988, a pro-democracy movement, much the same as that currently underway, was crushed when the military government killed upward of 3,000 civilian protestors. In 1989, the military government changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar.
In 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi won a general election, but the incumbent powers refused to relinquish the government. She has been under house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years.
A UN envoy sent to Burma to negotiate and discuss the situation on Sept. 29 made it clear that she must be a part of the discussion.
Since 1989, confusion has reigned in many areas as to whether or not to call the country by its former name, Burma, or its new name Myanmar.
For many citizens, the self-identification of Burmese is a way of showing dissent to the military rulers. Similarly, during the independence movement from Great Britain in the late 1940s, left-wing independence groups preferred to use the more inclusive Burma and the traditionalist right-wing factions preferred the more historical Myanmar.
The political connotations of the name usage are not lost on modern society. At Toronto’s rally, protestors unanimously called for a “Free Burma.”
“We all knows what it means,” said Chow. “A human life is a human right. It’s Burma.”

Montreal will be having its own march Oct. 6. For more information join “Let’s march to support democracy in Burma” on Facebook.


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