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Could change be afoot in Myanmar?

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On a recent trip to Myanmar, activist and actress Emma Thompson and her adopted son Tindy discussed the issue of human rights with one-year-free-from-house-arrest opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi.

TindyThe meeting came about after a request made by ActionAid Myanmar, which Thompson and Tindy are both involved with – Thompson for over ten years.

So, the question must be asked, if cautiously: could change be coming to the South East Asian country? The country that is, in the minds of many westerners, notorious for its harsh treatment of crimson-robed Buddhist monks during protests in late 2007?

Until March this year Myanmar was under the power of a military junta, but a general election in 2010 has seen a more progressive government emerge, led by President Thein Sein.

So, possibly yes. But one thing is certain: human rights will not forcibly manifest themselves in the way we have recently seen in Tunisia, and in Egypt, and then in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, and all the other Arab and North African countries that have seen their citizens rise up against the rulers over the past year.

Myanmar, Tindy tells TNS, is an entirely different situation. President Sein is a reformist, and despite being his political opponent Aung San Suu Kyi has believed for some time that he is a genuine advocator for change.  

There will be no uprising in Myanmar, Tindy believes: ‘Political change manifests itself completely differently in different parts of the world... Myanmar has unique circumstances and it is the way that young activists have worked around the strong-armed government to bring about change that is so admirable.’

So what are these young activists doing to begin the no doubt laborious process of change?

‘I spoke with Aung San Suu Kyi about the youth and she reiterated that there is already strong grassroot activism among young people in some areas of the country that have been especially spearheaded by the Fellows Programme, part of the global Activista network, of ActionAid,’ Tindy says. ‘And she wants to expand this success story to most, if not all, parts of the country when she has the capacity.’

Tindy goes on to discuss what Aung San Suu Kyi is doing herself to move the country forward, with regards to the next generation: ‘She values young people as a resource and she wants to place them at the heart of the transition to democracy,’ he says. ‘So, irrespective of the small capacity that her party possesses at the moment, she is setting up schemes where young people can access credit to enable them to become small-scale entrepreneurs and she is also thinking up ways of how to make the youth emotionally and psychologically ready when the political transition eventually happens.’

Aung San Suu Kyi, who was only released from twenty one years of intermittent house arrest on the 13th of November last year, is still extremely cautious –understandably so. Even though she is hopeful of a transition, she is ‘careful not to allow hopes to shroud her analysis of the situation.’

Tindy also met some of the young Burmese Activista members who are striving for change: ‘Most ActionAid Myanmar staff are young men and women and it was not only so refreshing seeing the courage, enthusiasm and hope they have for their country, but also how they were able to articulate fundamental problems affecting them and how they aimed to solve them.’

This national pride rather than foreign intervention, he believes, is what Aung San Suu Kyi is relying on. Pride, self worth and identity amongst Burmese youth are her aims; looking beyond the country’s borders for help could counteract this.

As well as meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi and the youth activists, Tindy spent time with former political prisoners – some of whom had only been released that day. He calls the experience ‘momentous’, and calls to light the grace, forgiveness, sanity and staying power that they displayed.

He also says that the feeling amongst them was that Thein’s reforms were genuine.

What are Tindy’s plans, then, now he is back from Burma? Considering his past (he was adopted at the age of 16 by Thompson; his family had been killed in the Rwandan genocide) is a career in humanitarian work the way forward?

His next stop is Liberia, where he will meet ex child combatants and look at ways that they can be accepted into society. He is quick to point out that his own experiences are not the sole reason for his current work. He is ‘fascinated by understanding how strong people are irrespective of their backgrounds. It is that asset – the mechanisms of survival – that I think makes people so special, and that continuous learning from such great human beings will always make me more inclined to human rights type of work.’

He plans to remain in Liberia for at least a year, developing a food brand through social entrepreneurship. The aim is to impart skills in order that those involved can help themselves, and his intention is to eventually take the model to other post-conflict societies.

He says, ‘The experience has so far taught me that the exceptionally tough and industrious people in post-conflict societies are much more interesting and challenging to work with than being in an office in the city of London.’

UK students who are interested in the subject can become part of Activista, the youth branch of ActionAid that combats injustice and poverty. There are a number of Activista groups running on university campuses in the UK. (www.myactivista.org)

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