GMC student speaks out against Burma's corruption

20 April 2008

April 18, 2008

They were called volunteers, but if they didn't work they could be arrested. Wai was still in high school when she saw her parents and sister forced into labor by the government.Wai's family has a long history of political involvement. Her grandfather was part of the communist party in Burma, eventually getting arrested and given the death sentence by the government for his political choices.
After four years in jail awaiting his sentence he was given amnesty.He passed his political passion onto Wai's father, who has been a part of antigovernment groups his entire life.Wai's father, brother and sister have all been arrested for participating in various political demonstrations against the government, and their house in Burma still serves as a meeting place for political discussions where people gather secretly at night.For Wai, getting involved in her country's politics was second nature.
After high school she became a journalist to help expose the Burmese government, which, among other corrupt practices, forces people to build dams, highways and military facilities unpaid and unfed.She took risks during her investigating, including possible jail time, because she believed strongly in the transparency of government politics.The government censored her work and never allowed the articles to be published. Although her stories never became public, her reporting brought attention to the subject, and eventually the government responded by cutting down on forced labor, although it has not stopped completely.
In 2006, Wai halted her journalism career to join an educational program that would eventually bring her to America. Today, she studies communications at Green Mountain College in Poultney.Attendees will have the chance to hear more of Wai's story during Green Mountain College's spring play, "Speak Truth to Power," at 7 p.m. April 25-26.The play by Ariel Dorfman is a collection of monologues representing human rights activists from around the world. Personal stories from international students at the college have been incorporated into the script to make it more engaging.Wai from Burma, Teep from Uganda, Peter from Sudan — these students at Green Mountain College have traveled far, experienced a lot and have stories to share.
The monologues will be a reminder of human rights violations that happen every day, as well as the heroes like Wai that are helping make positive changes.Wai is a petite young lady with a great big laugh. She was given the prestigious Make-a-Difference-Scholarship at Green Mountain College, awarded to students who have made positive changes for their communities. Wai was chosen because of her willingness and devotion as a journalist, covering forced labor by the Burmese government.Wai made the decision to risk her career when she began covering the forced labor issue.
In 2003, during a New Year festival in her village, a large portion of the villagers had to stop their celebrations because they had been chosen by the government to help in a construction project. The Village Head approached Wai secretly, giving her information about the project, and asked her to write an article about it.Wai was nervous — if she wanted to write a good article she knew she must talk to the International Labor Organization, which is a U.N. agency.However, in Burma it is against the law to talk to the United Nations, so Wai had to be careful. Her father told her to take the risk.
A few nights after Wai's village had been forced into labor, she decided to travel to the capital to talk with the ILO officer."I was really worried the government would find out," she said. "But it was the only way to do it."Wai told the officer her story — about how her village was celebrating the New Year until the government came and said the villagers must work for them. The ILO officer contacted the military commission chief, but he denied the government still used forced labor.The truth was that the forced labor was now called "volunteer" work."Burmese people normally love to give volunteer work," Wai said. "We're really happy to do it, but this is not volunteer work, this is forced labor. They don't provide you with food or a house or salary."She said that people have died during projects because of the horrible working conditions.After getting enough reports from Wai and others, the ILO began working with the government to stop forced labor.
Wai said that in 2005, cases of it seriously subsided, although it's still going on today in small Burmese villages where it's less likely to be discovered.News is hard to come by in the country because the government has control over the media. Wai has seen many of her friends fired because the government did not like articles they published."People in Burma don't even know forced labor is still happening," said Wai, and when they do hear stories, "people don't know what to deny or to accept."Wai has adapted well to America. She has continued her journalism career here by writing for the college newspaper, focusing on both local and global news.
But despite the dangers and oppressions she will face, Wai wants to go back to Burma when she graduates."I feel that the U.S. has many intelligent people already, so the U.S. doesn't need me. My country needs me," she said.Wai said that by going back to Burma and sharing her experiences, she can teach her people about the outside world and the rights and freedoms that are possible."I can show them that change can happen," she said.Although Wai's story is marked with suffering, a feeling of hopefulness carries it.She is a strong woman that has risked a lot and helped make big changes for her country.
There are others out there that are also standing up. A voice from "Speak Truth to Power," says: "I know what it is to wait in the dark for torture and what it is to wait in the dark for truth. I did what I had to do. Anything else would have tasted like ashes."


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