The word "issue" -- the Darfur issue, the Iraq issue, the homelessness issue -- is kind of irksome, but it hints at a vital fact: As Americans of a certain economic status and social class, our "issues" are other people's lives. As a journalist and as an American, I struggle to use my privilege, accorded me by birth and by experience, to unearth information and eyewitness testimony about such issues. But lately, with the Iraq occupation, Darfur, and the festering aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, this doesn't feel like nearly enough.
For a few months in 2002, Burma was my issue, my story. The country was in the news because the military junta, the State Peace and Development Council, had decided to release from prison several hundred members of the National League for Democracy, the party of Daw Aung Sang Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner and usually imprisoned opposition figure. A United Nations special envoy, Razali Ismail, was due to visit Rangoon and have talks with the junta's leaders, Senior General Than Shwe, General Maung Aye, and General Khin Nyunt.
I traveled to Burma, ostensibly as a tourist, but actually as a freelance reporter, since the regime doesn't willingly host visits from journalists or others prone to scrutinizing its subjugation of its people. I knew that speaking directly to people -- interviewing -- might land them in jail. So I didn't do much of that. Instead, I observed. I also showed up dutifully at the headquarters of the NLD several days in a row, hoping for an audience with Aung Sang Suu Kyi. Each day I would arrive, make my request, and wait.
One day, while I waited to speak to an NLD official, there was a free, weekly health screening going on for indigent mothers and children. The tiny headquarters was full of women and infants.
I mentioned to a young man who sat next to me, a new NLD member, that I was surprised how little surveillance there was of the headquarters -- and of me. I had visited nearly a half a dozen times and never drawn any special scrutiny by police or other agents of the state. He smiled at me, then gestured with his head, almost imperceptibly, toward two casually dressed men lounging across the street and sipping tea. "Military intelligence," he said.
Eventually, I was granted an interview with U Lwin, a party spokesman. He was circumspect. He told me that many NLD members had been released, but others had been quietly jailed, too. Suu Kyi was being permitted to make low-key -- and heavily monitored -- visits to NLD offices in other parts of the country, but she wasn't allowed to speak with the press. So when The Lady, as Suu Kyi's supporters call her, made an appearance at the office and I asked her for permission to photograph her, she declined my request, gently.
"If we make one mistake, this will finish us," U Lwin told me. Indeed.
U Lwin and The Lady were right to be cautious. Nothing changed in 2002. UN envoy's Ismail's meeting with junta leaders lasted 15 minutes, "hardly long enough to sit down and pick up a cup of tea," Josef Silverstein, a scholar on Burma, told me.
"Per capita income, reported months ago to be about $300, is in free fall," I wrote in Newsweek International in November 2002. The UN had reported that Burma's HIV rate was one of the world's highest (1 in 50 adults infected). Human Rights Watch Report noted that an estimated 20% of active-duty soldiers in the army were under the age of 18. The price of rice had tripled outside Rangoon, according to the NLD.
The advocacy group Altsean was unequivocal about who was to blame for Burma's abject condition: "The humanitarian situation is man-made; the junta is directly responsible on numerous levels for inadequate access to basic needs." The junta's response? Hire an American public relations firm, DCI Associates, to burnish its international image.
I published a story. Then, the US invaded Iraq. Burma receded for me. I stopped paying attention.
Last month, along with so many others around the world, I watched the Burmese stand up to the junta. They took to the streets and were crushed by the military, the Tatmadaw, and then intimidated into silence. For now. The world now wrings its hands. We apparently have little leverage over the already isolated and brutal SPDC. So Burma fades from front pages.
But our powerless is an illusion. Yes, there are petitions to sign. We can lobby Congress and protest at the UN. That's not enough. I emailed a Burma activist and advocate for suggestions about concrete things to do.
She suggested donating to established organizations that provide aid and services to Burmese, inside and outside the country. She pointed me toward a number of groups working directly to alleviate the suffering of Burmese, particularly refugees. The Mae To Clinic in Mae Sot, Thailand, provides medical care to refugees and migrant workers. You can donate at www.maetaoclinic.org/donate.html
Global Health Access also runs health programs that keep Burmese healthy and alive. See what they do at www.ghap.org.
You can also contribute at: www.ghap.org/how_to_help/money/
All these groups accept -- and need -- volunteers, too.
You can also support Burmese women by shopping. WEAVE, Women's Education for Advancement and Empowerment, was started in 1990 to provide sustainable work for Burmese refugee women, particularly those from ethnic groups that are discriminated against inside the country. Go to www.weave-women.org to see what they do -- and to become a customer. WEAVE also runs an Early Childhood Development Program, a health education project, and other essential initiatives.
There are many advocacy, activist and media organizations focusing on Burma that one can visit online for information and suggestions for actions. The Women's League of Burma is an umbrella group comprised of 12 leading organizations: www.womenofburma.org.
Altsean is a human rights group that monitors Burma, publishes periodic reports and briefings, and advocates for change. You can buy copies of their reports -- and T-shirts -- via Pay Pal, at www.altsean.org/Store/Store.php.
Altsean is also spearheading an effort to pressure the UN Security Council to take action on Burma, www.unscburma.org
Subscriptions to the Irrawaddy, the excellent, informative, and courageous news magazine about Burma written by exiles, can be ordered at www.irrawaddymedia.com/shop/.
Even if the Burma "issue" recedes from our popular news media, the nation's people still need our support.