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Commentary: Myanmar (Burma)

By William Holston, KERA Commentator

Dallas, TX –

We've heard a lot about Burma this week. I wonder if people know that there are over 1200 people from Burma who live in the Dallas area. Burma, is ruled by a highly authoritarian military regime. This is a country where the Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest.

When I think of Burma, I think about a young man I met him through my pro bono representation of applicants for Political Asylum. The young man, a youth pastor is wearing the colorful clothing of the Chin people. For simply talking to youth about their culture, he and a colleague were arrested. My client managed to escape, but his friend was tortured and executed. I remember sitting and preparing his case at a small apartment in East Dallas. We shared a meal of the very spicy Burmese food as we prepared. He was able to obtain asylum. My latest client was a 75 year old woman, slapped around by soldiers, wanting to know where her daughter was. Thankfully, these wonderful kind people are safe here now.

Cyclone Nargis is an unimaginable disaster. Over 100,000 people could be dead. But Burma was already a disaster. Its ruling junta turns away aid. Why would they do that, we ask? The answer is simple, yet chilling. It's because the government doesn't care for its people. It cares only about maintaining power.

From Buddhist monks to Baptist pastors, anyone speaking out faces prison, torture or death.

I can't believe that military intervention is a wise course for us. In fact, it is counterproductive and likely to add to the paranoia of this country's leaders.

And yet, what can we do? We long to do something. We should, of course give money to groups like World Vision. But, when the recovery from this natural disaster is over, there will still be a political and human rights disaster. We as individuals can be a voice for people who struggle to speak for themselves. We can demand that our leader's cooperate with the International community in seeking diplomatic solutions. We can pressure companies like Chevron, who do business in Burma, to forego more profits and place conditions on this government.

Living in North Texas is a challenge for Burmese people. Imagine what it is like to seek health care, to interact with government, or to get a job, when you don't speak the language, especially with an entirely different alphabet. There are only so many resources available. It is even more difficult because many of the refugees are from ethnic minorities, such as the Karen, the Chin and Kachin, who all speak a different language from each other.

Many of these minority groups are Christian and so their new life here is organized around church. In these communities, they help each other to learn English and to find jobs. They help each other fill out the endless forms. They point each other to resources, such as groups like Human Rights Initiative and Catholic Charities. They read the Bible and pray in their native language. They try to keep up with news from home. They find that for the first time, they and their children can go to school, worship God, gain degrees and employment without the prejudice that has been a daily occurrence for them.

As we look at the tragedy in Burma, it is useful, I think, to recall the words of Aung San Suu Kyi, who once said, The wellspring of courage and endurance in the face of unbridled power is generally a firm belief in the sanctity of ethical principles combined with a historical sense that despite all setbacks the condition of man is set on an ultimate course for both spiritual and material advancement. I hope that is true for the people of Burma. Today, I pray that it is true.

William Holston is an attorney from Dallas.