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Interviews : Khin Ohmar

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Interviewed August 2010

Khin Ohmar is a Burmese democracy activist who lives and works in Mae Sot, Thailand. She is a leader of the Women’s League of Burma, the main umbrella organization for women’s organizations in exile and inside Burma.

Khin has served as a spokesperson for the Burmese democracy movement in the United Nations General Assembly and in other international forums. She also serves as coordinator of the Burma Partnership, a regional coalition of civil society groups supporting democracy in Burma, and she is an organizer of the ASEAN civil society and human rights consultation processes.

Admitted to the United States as a refugee after being persecuted for her participation in the 1988 student demonstrations, Khin became a United States citizen and worked for refugee and human rights organizations in Washington, D.C., before moving back to the Thai-Burma border area in the late 1990s. 

The international organizations, or the different agencies of the United Nations operating in the country, are those international organizations who actually were before on the border but now try to engage from within the country. I mean their intention is, of course, really appreciated by all of us inside and outside the country – by all the Burmese – because the people of Burma really need the help and the humanitarian assistance, all they can.

But my observation of what’s happening is that, I mean, it’s natural for a humanitarian organization to think that it will be better to engage with a population from within a country, so that they can have more access to the population in need. And if it were not Burma – if it were not a Burmese regime, if it were another conflict country – it could have been a different scenario. It could have been a different picture, I would say. But what they are dealing [with] is a military regime, which has systematically infiltrated into the lives of the people – very systematically, to the point that people are not able to speak. Even though they are out of the country, they are not able to speak of what is happening to them.

People are deeply traumatized under this regime. So even though the international community, or international NGOs, would like to go and help the people in the country, they are facing a lot of challenges. Of course one is the structure of the military regime, or the red tape, the bureaucracy, what do you call that? The bureaucratic procedure of the military regime is impossible to work with or for the international NGOs to have access to their local communities.

And because this is a regime which is so phobic of anyone coming to challenge their authority in any way, particularly, especially the international community coming into the country. They’re afraid that is going to open the way up to bring down their authority. And they are very aware of it. And therefore they are very prepared. Which is impossible for the INGOs [international non-governmental organizations] to overcome with. There are many ways that INGOs’ lives are made impossible and difficult to really help the people in the country.

So if you look at, for example, the different annual reports by all these NGOs or the UN agencies operating in a country, you will probably read a lot of good stories of the success of the programs, while you will still see a greater need to support the people, or assist the people. But then, when you really go down to meet with the people and listen to hear from them – if the people feel comfortable enough to tell you, with no fear – you will definitely hear a different story about those programs. Because the programs of the INGOs or the, you know, international organizations, in their report, are of course labeled as their programs. But it comes down to the communities, to whatever the level, it become the programs by the military regime.

So it is a propaganda. I mean I´ll give one example back in 2008, after the Cyclone Nargis. When the international aid was delivered to the country, and then these authorities, the Burmese authorities, bring those boxes of the aid. And those aids are in the name of them – in the name of the military regime. It’s not in the name of any country. It’s not in the name of any INGOs. You know?

And they do take advantage like that. So that, as if they were the one who are saving the people. See, they want to make this kind of face. So when you have an immunization program for the children, for example, and then, yes, it is a UN program. But when it comes down to the ground, to the people – in the eyes of the people – it is seen as the government program.

Whereas it should be free, but where people even still have to pay for their children to get an immunization. You see? So all these abuses of the international aid, it’s difficult for the outsider to really understand – except the Burmese. We, the Burmese, know so well how this regime operates and functions and manipulate the whole international.

Burma, a Southeast Asian country with about 57 million people, is ruled by a military regime that seized power in 1962. Although the reformist National League for Democracy (NLD) won overwhelmingly in a 1990 election, the country’s military rulers ignored the results and arrested NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 “for her nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights.” The military government held a referendum on a new constitution in 2008 and a parliamentary election in 2010, neither of which was regarded by international observers as free or fair, and both of which resulted in overwhelming majorities for pro-government positions and candidates. The military regime has committed widespread and systematic human rights violations, including extrajudicial killing, torture, rape, and denial of freedom of expression, association, assembly, and religion.

Throughout its existence, the regime has been at war with a number of Burma’s ethnic minority groups. Ethnic minority voters overwhelmingly supported the NLD in the 1990 election, and after the suppression of the democracy movement several of these groups continued or resumed armed resistance to the de facto government. Although the government signed cease-fire agreements with several of these groups ostensibly granting them autonomy within their respective regions, the Burmese military has used a range of brutal techniques, including the killing of civilians, forced labor, rape, and the destruction of homes, crops, and villages, in cease-fire zones as well as in areas where there is still armed resistance.

In 2007, as on several previous occasions, there were mass demonstrations throughout the country demanding freedom and democracy. The 2007 demonstrations were led by Buddhist monks and eventually became known as the “Saffron Revolution” after the color of the monks’ robes. The armed forces brutally suppressed these demonstrations—estimates of the number of protestors killed range from 31 to several thousand—and intensified popular dissatisfaction with the government by the killing, beating, and public humiliation of monks.

The nominally civilian government resulting from the 2010 election has been widely regarded as a façade for continuing military rule. However, in October 2011, the government released 206 of Burma’s estimated 2,000 prisoners of conscience. The next month, the government announced that it would soon release all remaining political prisoners. The NLD, which had declined to participate in the 2010 election, registered to participate in the next election and announced that Aung San Suu Kyi would be among the NLD candidates.

Although the military regime announced in 1989 that it had changed the English name of the country from Burma to “Myanmar,” the United States government and other international supporters of democracy in Burma have generally continued to call the country Burma because this is the name preferred by Aung San Suu Kyi and other democracy advocates who won the 1990 election. 

More from Khin Ohmar

Khin Ohmar: International Help The effects of actions by the UN and international non-governmental organizations in Burma. Khin Ohmar: Burmese Democracy Movement The strengths and weaknesses of the Burmese democracy movement and of the military regime. Khin Ohmar: Multi-ethnic Burma How people from different ethnic groups, backgrounds, and political perspectives work together in the Burmese democracy movement. More + Khin Ohmar: Student Activist and Calling Her first protest against the Burmese military regime in 1988, after the police shot and killed one of her fellow students. Khin Ohmar: Technology Pros and Cons How modern communications technologies help the Burmese democracy movement but are also used as tools of oppression by the military regime. Khin Ohmar: Peaceful Protest Effectiveness The effectiveness of peaceful protests in Burma. Khin Ohmar: Inspirations for Freedom How she and her fellow Burmese activists have been inspired by Aung San Suu Kyi -- and by other democracy activists from around the world including Nelson Mandela, Xanana Gusmao, and Jose Ramos-Horta. Khin Ohmar: Aung San Suu Kyi The leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi. Khin Ohmar: Finding Allies Efforts by the Burmese democracy movement to identify and communicate with sympathetic officials within the military regime. Khin Ohmar: NGOs How the Burmese military regime manipulated international NGOs working in Burma after Cyclone Nargis. Khin Ohmar: Crackdown on Peaceful Protests The Burmese military regime’s harsh crackdown on peaceful protests led by Buddhist monks. Khin Ohmar: Encouragement A message to share with all democracy activists around the world.