Myanmar is changing. The sorely tested country is working hard to recover from the brutality of more than 50 years of military dictatorship and of harrowing and deadly civil wars. 8 November its people went to the polls for what was hoped to be the first free and fair elections in 25 years. Regardless of the results, there will be a long and difficult journey before the dreams and hopes of the people can be fulfilled. The tasks ahead are tremendous. Thankfully, there are individuals all over this beautiful and rich country who spend every day struggling for a better future – strong, spirited fighters for peace, democracy and human dignity.
The people portrayed in this exhibition are all engaged in making a difference in their communities and for the country. Some of them show fearless and great leadership; some are battling the quiet struggles of everyday life, for the benefit of their neighbourhoods; others got lost on a path of intolerance and hatred. Each and every one of them has made great personal sacrifices in the fight for what they believe in.
Ndau Gam, internally displaced
“They tied my hands on my back, beat me with the butt of a gun, knocked my teeth out and took me to a hill nearby. I only understand some Burmese, but I heard they said “kill”. So I fled, thinking that if I were to be killed anyway, I might as well die trying to escape. All I want is a peaceful life for my people.”
Ndau Gam is a farmer from the village Nam Gau, in northern Shan State. He lives with his two-year-old daughter Bawk Sam in Bumtsit, a camp for internally displaced people. Because soldiers from the Burmese Army found that he stored clothes and ammunition for the Kachin Independence Army on his farm, he was arrested and tortured.
Phyoe Phyoe Aung, student activist
“The revolution lives in me, and I’m proud of it. My first years as an activist was exciting, it felt like taking part in a spy movie. I wasn't afraid, as I knew jail well after having visited my father there. I still fight, because I believe that the constitution from 2008 does not give room for a real democracy, seeing how the military is guaranteed 25 percent of the seats in parliament. We need a completely new constitution, it’s not enough to change the paragraphs one by one.”
As a 19 year-old Phyoe Phyoe Aung was jailed together with fellow pro-democracy activists. She served three and a half years in prison, until she was released together with most of Myanmar’s political prisoners in 2011. On March 10th 2015 she was arrested again for having led a peaceful demonstration, and she is currently serving jail time while her case is fought in court.
Ashin Kumara, Buddhist monk in Yangon
“I do not accept the term ‘Rohingya’, which is the word used by the international community. I only accept ‘Bengali’. To live with them is impossible and there are too many Muslims in the state. The government doesn't seem to have any solutions for stability, employment or education. Aung San Suu Kyi and the opposition want to change the constitution, and the international community believes that Myanmar will become a democracy, but so far the change has not been real.”
In 2007 Ashin Kumara participated in the protests known as the Saffron Revolution by spreading news online. He comes from Sittwe in Rakhine State. He is critical of the government’s neglect of Myanmar’s ethnic groups, but this does not include the Muslim Rohingya minority.
Abu Tahay, Rohingya spokesperson
“Rakhine State was an independent kingdom until 1784, and the Arakanese lived peacefully side by side with the Rohingya. My people, the Rohingya, haven't had freedom of movement since 1984, our mosques have been closed since 2012, we have limited access to higher education and no public health services. There are no initiatives to stop our people from becoming so desperate that they put their lives in danger in ramshackle boats.”
Abu Tahay is leader of the Union National Development Party (UNDP) and the grassroots organization Smile. He ran for parliament in 2010, but is now banned from running again because he wants to register as ‘Rohingya’. To be accepted as a candidate he had to register as ‘Bengali’, which he refuses to do as he was born in Rakhine State of western Myanmar and his family can document their belonging in the area for at least six generations back.
Ye Lwin, musician and composer
“I daily recite ‘Share my love. Share my peace. Share my harmony.’ These are rough times in our country. We ask the government to change the constitution, but the military does not want peace or a constitution that gives them less power. But maybe, if we share our love, our peace and our harmony with them, they will pull back.”
Ye Lwin was born only a month before Burma declared its independence from Great Britain in 1948. He has written and played political songs for many years, which has earned him both awards and many years in prison. In 2014 he was awarded the title ‘Hero of Burma’ for his tireless struggle for the refugees in Rakhine and Kachin.
Charles Maung Bo, Archbishop of Yangon
“Myanmar is a rainbow nation with different ethnic and religious groups that should live peacefully side-by-side. Our differences should not be a threat, but a strength to celebrate. The idea of one race and one religion will never work in Myanmar. The Ma Ba Tha and the government discriminates against anyone who is not Buddhist. Buddhism stands for love and compassion, but these people are full of hate speech.”
Since the religious nationalistic association of Buddhist monks, the so-called Ma Ba Tha, has pushed through legislation that creates restrictions on interfaith marriage, birth spacing, polygamy and conversion, especially aimed to target the Muslim population of Myanmar, Charles Maung Bo has emerged as an important voice against the oppression of ethnic minorities, including the persecuted Rohingya people.
Aung Naing Oo, peace negotiator at the Myanmar Peace Center
“Taking this job, I knew that I would have to meet people I didn't want to look in the eyes, that I would have to shake hands with people I didn't want to shake hands with. But this is where my heart is. We have so many natural resources to fight over internally, and it doesn't become easier by the fact that many other countries have economic interests here.”
Aung Naing Oo joined the revolt in 1988 as a student of English literature. A month later, he found himself in a camp in the jungles of Karen State together with other activists. After eleven years in the jungle he started teaching at the university of Chiang Mai, Thailand. In 2012 he returned to Myanmar to work on the government’s economic and social reforms.
Chan Rod, teacher
“I would like to study English so I can teach it to my students. That will give them more opportunities when they grow up. I would love to study abroad, preferably in Hong Kong, but it’s really hard to get a scholarship, so it might remain a dream. The majority of the students here are girls, because many of the boys are sent to Thailand to work and make money for their families. The dropout rate is high, especially in sixth and seventh grade, when almost everyone goes to Thailand to work.”
Only about half of Myanmar’s children finish primary school. In areas such as Mon State, which has been plagued by civil war since Burma became independent, fighting between the army and the ethnic militia has interrupted the teaching over the years. 22 year-old Chan Rod teaches at a Mon school, where the children learn their own people’s history and language, in addition to Burmese, which many of the children in isolated places don’t master.