"Dissidents and the Fight for Freedom"
Featuring Václav Havel, Former President of the Czech Republic
Library of Congress, February 20, 2007
Bio: Min Zin has been involved in Burma's prodemocracy movement since 1988. He joined the movement as a fourteen-year-old high school activist and founded a nationwide high school students union. During his time in the prodemocracy movement, he worked closely with National League for Democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, including delivering speeches with Suu Kyi in various townships around Burma's capital Rangoon. In 1989, Min Zin was forced into hiding and began what was to be a nine-year existence inside Burma's underground movement. Following the December 1996 student demonstrations in Burma, Min Zin's security situation deteriorated to the point where he finally decided it was too dangerous to continue living in Burma and subsequently fled to the Thai-Burma border in September 1997. After working in Thailand for a number of years, including serving as deputy editor of The Irrawaddy magazine, he came to the United States, where he now works as an International Radio Broadcaster in the Burmese Service of Radio Free Asia.
Remarks: First, I would like to thank the event organizers for giving me this wonderful opportunity. It is my great honored to be invited to talk about Burma and its democratic struggle-especially its moral connection to President Havel.
Actually, Mr. Havel has been familiar to Burmese people since Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (DASSK) in her speeches repeatedly elaborated Mr. Havel's teachings-the idea of the power of powerless. But I would say that Mr. Havel has gained nationwide respect in Burma, not because of DASSK, but- ironically -because of military dictators.
It happened when Mr. Havel and Bishop Desmond Tutu jointly published a report entitled "Threat to the Peace: A Call for the UN Security Council to Act in Burma". The report provided a powerful new direction in international effort to bring democracy in Burma.
We all know that there have been 16 consecutive resolutions passed by the UN General Assembly and 13 consecutive resolutions by the Commission on Human Rights on Burma, as well as several UN Special Envoys calling for national reconciliation in Burma. Moreover, Secretary General Kofi Annan has said he was "concerned," then "increasingly concerned," then "gravely concerned" about the situation in Burma. But these efforts and voices fell on the regime's deaf ear. The military regime continues its catalogue of crimes against humanity: imprisonments of over 1,200 political prisoners including DASSK, thousands of civilians being pushed into forced labor, more child soldiers than any other country in the world, about 3,000 villages destroyed in ethnic minority areas of eastern Burma since 1996, the use of rape as a weapon in the ethnic conflicts throughout the country, millions of refugees and internally displaced people within the country and across the borders of neighboring countries-to name but a few.
That's why the Havel-Tutu report proposed a UN Security Council resolution that would compel the regime to work with the Secretary General towards national reconciliation - beginning with the release of political prisoners, stop atrocities in ethnic minority areas and start political dialogue with democratic oppositions. Havel and Tutu did not call for sanctions and just called for the effective multi-lateral engagement to be applied through the council. In one word, the report proposes a practical alternative between inaction and sanctions.
When the report came out in Sept 2005, the regime made a series of desperate reactions. You can imagine that the State-run media was flooded with government statements, speeches, articles denouncing the report of Mr. Havel and Bishop Tutu. But when the government made these statements public, they also made public almost all of the details of the report. In other words, the public had the opportunity to read and listen to a translation of the report. That's why I said the regime has made Mr. Havel highly respected and popular among Burmese people.
We, the outside media such as Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, and BBC, broadcast the news about how DASSK's election winning party, ethnic minority parties, and ethnic resistance groups all welcome the Havel-Tutu initiative. We run stories of how ordinary people inside Burma would like to see the UN Security Council (UNSC)'s constructive involvement in Burma.
As we all know, the U.S. translated the Havel-Tutu report into action. The U.S. managed to put Burma in the UNSC's agenda in September 2006. But when it called for a vote in January 2007 on a non-punitive Burma resolution, China and Russia vetoed against it. This setback has shattered the hopes of Burmese people for a smooth, and over due, democratic transition in their country with the help of the UNSC. Recently, the leader of the Karen ethnic women group, which has just issued a report about widespread rape in their villages committed by the Burmese military, told us (the media) that the Chinese and Russian vetoes encourage the regime to rape more women in their villages. One prominent activist also says that the vetoes grant the regime "a license to kill" people of Burma.
But don't get them wrong-they don't dwell on being victimized. They have shown tremendous courage and unyielding determination to fight for their freedom. DASSK is a shinning example. And not only DASSK, but also Min Ko Naing and other student leaders who, having spent over 16 years in military gulags, were released in the past two years and have re-engaged in nonviolent resistance against the regime inside Burma. There are also labor activists, lawyers, and Buddhist monks working together to fight against enormous injustice and to bring a political solution to the country's crisis. They all have done these things facing the threat of imprisonment, torture, and the loss of their livelihoods.
Burmese people know that they have to rely on themselves to free their country. But they also appreciate the importance of international solidarity. They feel gratitude to people like Mr. Havel for their moral leadership in the struggle for freedom, and they are also very thankful to countries like the U.S. for mobilizing international consensus and action to bring democracy in Burma. They expect that with the leadership of U.S. and the persistent moral support from Mr. Havel, Burma's resolution will be passed by the UNSC. This would give the Burmese people a great moral boost as well as political space for their courageous drive for democracy.
Before I came here for this speech, I contacted several political leaders as well as ordinary people alike asking what message they want to convey to this respectful audience. They answered by repeating what DASSK has said:
Please use your liberty to promote ours.