Wednesday, April 20, 2011

From a jungle village, a voice for her people

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
Zoya Phan calls herself “one of the lucky ones.” She escaped from Myanmar and the military regime’s war on its own people without being raped, maimed or killed. She managed to go to school in a refugee camp, and in 2004 reached a university in Britain, where she sought asylum.
Today her travels, speeches, and a memoir have made her the face of Myanmar’s oppressed ethnic minorities and the best-known Myanmarese activist in the world after Aung San Suu Kyi. After years of travelling widely to speak against the regime, initiating campaigns and giving weekly interviews beamed into Myanmar by exile radio, Ms. Pham was promoted this year by Burma Campaign UK to international co-ordinator, managing all campaigns for the London-based group.

A Karen tribeswoman raised in the jungle who spoke halting English, she found herself at age 23 alone in a strange land except for her older sister in London. But Ms. Phan, the daughter of a widely admired leader of the Karen resistance, Mahn Sha, has followed in her father’s footsteps, devoting her new life to freeing Myanmar (formerly Burma) from dictatorship.
In Britain, at Ms. Phan’s first demonstration anywhere, someone thrust a megaphone at her and asked her to act as emcee. Although she looked like a teenager, she improvised and led the crowd in cheers. Afterward, journalists demanded interviews. Invited to speak at the Conservative Party’s annual conference, her remarks brought a standing ovation from thousands. In her stage presence, she reminds people of her father.
When monks in 2007 led protests in Myanmar, then-British-prime-minister Gordon Brown phoned Ms. Phan, by then one of the activists staffing the Burma Campaign UK, for a Myanmarese perspective. Later, she led a campaign in Britain to help ethnic villagers hiding in the jungle from army attack. The campaign persuaded the British government to start delivering aid. More than 3,500 villages in eastern Myanmar have been destroyed by the Myanmarese army and at least half a million people have been internally displaced.
Ms. Phan is now working to persuade the United Nations to establish a commission of inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Myanmar. Last year a UN special rapporteur visited Myanmar and called for an inquiry. He termed the abuses “state policy.”
Only 14 countries, including Canada and the United States, have endorsed a commission so far. Some countries are simply unaware of the issue, says Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, while others “just want to do business [with Myanmar] and not worry about human rights” or don’t want “to set precedents because they are also committing abuses.”
Ms. Phan’s group also plans to lobby various countries to urge UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to appoint a special envoy to pressure the regime to negotiate with the Suu Kyi-led democracy movement and ethnic groups. For years, the generals have refused to do so.
Ms. Phan also is managing efforts to win European Union support for the commission of inquiry and ensure the EU preserves its policy of sanctions against Myanmar, even though some members wish to trade with and invest in the country.
Far more people see Ms. Phan than Ms. Suu Kyi, who since being released from house arrest has chosen to stay in Rangoon meeting with people, giving interviews, and catching up after years of isolation. By contrast, Ms. Phan continues to travel widely.
Ms. Phan grew up in a jungle village. When she was 14, the army attacked the village and her family fled. She wound up trapped in two refugee camps on the Thai border for years until winning scholarships to attend universities in Bangkok and then Britain. Before leaving Thailand, she was part of a band of students who dared to travel undercover into the interior of Myanmar to investigate conditions.
For the past three years Ms. Phan has gathered a small group of Westerners – parliamentarians, journalists, and activists– at the Thai-Myanmar border to learn about the situation in Myanmar. They talk to monks, former political prisoners, exiled politicians and Karen National Union (KNU) leaders. She has spirited the group across the border into Myanmar on a series of daytime forays to see the desperate straits of displaced minorities. Because of the danger, they travel under Karen armed escort, and sneak back into Thailand before nightfall.
In 2008, after the first series of cross-border trips, Ms. Phan crossed back into Myanmar alone to see her father, then KNU secretary-general. There were two unsuccessful bomb plots on their lives. Shortly after she returned to London, her father was assassinated in his home. His death shook her, but she has not wavered.

Special to The Globe and Mail