|Let Her Speak|
|Written by Aaron Cohen - Human Rights Activist|
|Sunday, 26 July 2009 07:22|
Burma has been a part of my life since my college years when I was first invited to Southeast Asia for anti-trafficking work. Aware of a student movement in Burma that had smuggled cameras and freedom newspapers inside the country, I was excited to support their work and hear the mystical tales of jungle adventures and bazaar superstitions. When I started crossing the borders into the deep jungles of what was being called “Myanmar,” I didn't realize then how this small county’s struggle for freedom against an oppressive military regime would become a lifelong passion, inspiring in me the notion of redemption. Redemption for all of us…to work together and liberate the lost and persecuted ethnic minorities hiding along the borders of Thailand, Laos, Burma, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
In the 1990’s, Burma’s military junta violently imposed marshal law over its people leading to mass protests spear-headed by a strong, non-violent leader advocating for peace, Aung San Suu Kyi. The protesters, mostly students, were risking their lives for the right to freedom, and their massive public outcry led to international attention forcing the military junta to call for a general election. She won the election; however, the results were systematically nullified and Suu Kyi was kept under a mysterious house arrest. She has remained under various forms detention for almost 20 years.
Meanwhile, through our missions, we were bringing in aid and developing relations with the Karen, the Shan, and the Wa tribes. Our Memorandums of Understanding (MOU’s) with the ethnic army commanders implemented a “no child soldier” policy, which then allowed us to bring in medicinal, educational, and nutritional support. Over that period Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest, and she was silenced from speaking in public. The West and its politicians only kept a drone of protest alive, but didn’t put any real teeth into a solution. They called again to have the political prisoners released but, were subjugated to endless talk and delays.
I have seen first hand the wildly unjust oppression of the Burmese army, and in those jungles my life changed forever, because I have emerged with a better understanding of what Aung San Suu Kyi was trying to accomplish. Here is a woman who has sacrificed her own freedom for the hope that others might someday have justice and democracy.
While watching this unfold at the time, I had no idea how long she would remain imprisoned. Where was the public outcry? This struggle for freedom would transform into a world movement 20 years later, which was longer than I had anticipated.
Inspired by her grace and conviction, we rounded up as many colleagues who were also moved to action by her perseverance. As Suu Kyi’s story just recently became more prominent in the United States, I realized much hadn’t really changed in the last 20 years since her election. The first question most American’s unfortunately asked was, “Who is Aung San Suu Kyi?” Tragically, it seemed as if society had actually decided to let her and Burma go down the toilet with all of our freedoms and ideals of democracy attached to them. We couldn’t let her message of FREEDOM drown in a sea of rape, child soldiering, murder, enslavement, imprisonment, torture, and human trafficking could we?
While with Amnesty International, Jack Healey met Aung San Suu Kyi. He had spent 30 years advocating for political prisoners. Jack pioneered a campaign for the on going Burma movement with Jeremy Woodrum and Tim Hardy of the US Campaign for Burma. Joining this movement was Rich Leger and Sandy Kikerpill of AbolishSlavery.org, and Brian Sirgutz and Ryan Scott of Causecast.org, a non-profit online networking site synonymous with Youtube and Myspace, but for activists and causes. Brian Sirgutz, Jack, and I discussed approaching the artist Shepard Fairey to create a portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi, as a campaign poster for the movement. Shepard Fairey was renowned for his legendary, “HOPE” portrait of Barak Obama that had been immortalized across the world over the past year.
As the footwork was underway for our Burma campaign it was April, and a lot had been going on in Southern California. The first African American had been elected President of the United States, financial markets were collapsing with the mortgage lending debacle, and the biggest music festival of the year, Coachella, was blowing up the desert. I had plans to go to Coachella with my girlfriend, Jennifer, and our friends for the weekend. We all looked forward to putting work aside and clear our minds with the music. Little did we know, a series of events would make the dream of Aung San Suu Kyi’s message come alive again, this Summer.
While enjoying a show backstage an old friend, Flea from the Read Hot Chili Peppers, had come over to say hello and encouraged me to stop by and see my old colleague, Perry Farrell. At first I was reluctant to approach Perry because of past emotional grief, but with encouragement from Jennifer and friends, and Suu Kyi’s message burning in the back of my head, I agreed to see him. Although we had resolved our differences, I knew I had to put the awkwardness aside and go to my former best friend who I haven’t spoken with in over 2 years. As we walked over to the other stage, I had no idea who we’d also meet.
Perry came off stage after performing with his wife, Etty, and made his way over through the entourage of people to give me a hug. So there we were, everything that broke us apart in the past had disappeared like a mirage. It was good to see him again, and I realized how much time passed by noticing how tall his boys were now. After reconnecting, Perry turned to me and said, “I have someone I’d like you to meet,” and introduced me to Shepard Fairey. “Aaron,” Perry said, “I have been telling Shepard about the work to free slaves.”
“I want to use my art for freedom,” Shepard said. I could hear the sound of drums in the distance, and a desert wind breezed cool…“Would you paint the Aung San Suu Kyi portrait?” I asked.
Shepard and I joked about how hard Brian Sirgutz had been trying to get him to do the portrait. Jack Healey and Brian and been a force to be reckoned with, and now it looked like Shepard was nodding he was going to do it. “We’re only asking for them to let her speak,” I said relaying lines Jack Healey had prepared me with. “Let her speak, and let’s see what she has to say.” Perry smiled confidently and hugged us goodbye.
As if it had been pre-written by the hand of fate, the dream and the campaign for Aung San Suu Kyi’s message of freedom was gaining momentum. Over the next few months, pressure and attention on Burma would build from all sides. The ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) formed its Human Rights body, which currently threatens to expel Burma, and Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton has insisted on Aung San Suu Kyi’s unconditional release. The stage was being set, and I thought to myself,
“We can win this campaign!”