The Democracy Movement of Burma
Famed Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY) were among those present to pay tribute to Burma’s democracy movement, which was honored with theNational Endowment for Democracy’s 2012 Democracy Award at a Capitol Hill ceremony on Sept. 20.
Five prominent civil society activists accepted the award on behalf of the larger movement: Min Ko Naing, Hkun Htun Oo, Kyaw Thu, Dr. Cynthia Maung and Aung Din.
“Amidst the despair, Burma’s pro-democracy movement offered its people genuine reason for hope,” said NED President Carl Gershman. “While they endured decades of harassment and oppression, the popular desire for freedom, dignity and democratic change never wavered.”
“If the country is to make a full transition to democracy … Burma’s diverse, resilient and committed democratic opposition must continue to play a decisive role in driving the process forward,” he added.
Suu Kyi, who received the Congressional Gold Medal the day before, said that she appreciated the international recognition of others involved in the movement.
“To be honored is great, but to honor others is even greater,” said Suu Kyi. “I feel very happy that today I am in a position to honor my fellow countrymen and women.”
Several of the recipients had previously faced attacks and political pressure from the government of Burma for their work, among them celebrated student leader Min Ko Naing, who has spent 20 years of the past 23 years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement. Min Ko Naing and fellow activist honoree Hkun Htun Oo, chairman of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), were released in a presidential amnesty this January. Hkun Htun Oo had spent five years of a 93-year sentence in prison..
“Today’s honorees have dedicated their efforts, their lives and their passions to cause of human rights, freedom and democracy in Burma,” said Crowley. “They have toiled, and they have struggled, they have faced imprisonment, they have lived through sickness, and they have lost friends and families in this fight. Yet they have never ever given up.”
Suu Kyi, who had spent nearly 15 years in prison until her release in November 2010, echoed this sentiment while pledging to continue to advance democracy in Burma.
“It is of great comfort to me to know that there are many men and women in my country who are prepared to sacrifice their personal comfort and their personal place in life for place of others to make sure that the rest of the country is safe—to make sure that the rest of the country is free,” said Suu Kyi. “It is because of people like this that we can go on and be confident that our future will be happy.”
In their remarks, the recipients expressed pride for the movement while emphasizing that the award was not to honor them as individuals.
“I am excited and honored to have a chance to stand here for the first time in the congress of a democratic nation that has been supporting democracy and human rights around the world,” said Hkun Htun Oo. “I am honored to accept this award not for myself but for the people of Burma.”
Hkun Htun Oo ran in the 1990 elections as head of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, an opposition party that won 23 seats. When the military government annulled the results, he continued to push for a democratic Burma until his arrest on charges of “treason, defamation and inciting dissatisfaction toward the government.”
Kyaw Thu, an award-winning director and actor, was honored for his work in founding the Free Funeral Service Society (FFSS), which in addition to funerals, offers educational and health services, as well as outreach programs for the poor and political prisoners. Since its founding in 2001, the FFSS has grown to be one of the one of the most important civil society organizations in Burma.
Aung Din was honored for his work in founding the U.S. Campaign for Burma, where he serves as executive director, as well as his years as an advocate for the democratic opposition, which include his role in organizing the 1988 largely student-led, pro-democracy uprising alongside Min Ko Naing.
Dr. Cynthia Maung, an ethnic Karen medical doctor, was honored for founding the Mae Tao Clinic along the Thai-Burmese border. The clinic services 400–500 individual daily, including refugees, migrant workers and orphans. In her remarks, she noted that there are still many steps to be taken to ensure peace..
“Continuing military operations in ethnic states and civil restrictions of local and indigenous aid to war victims are key concerns in communities of Burma,” said Dr. Cynthia. “These situations also create mistrust of the peace process at the grass roots level. From the prospective of the service provider for displaced people, communities and civilians are disempowered physically, psychologically, emotionally and socially.”
Although unable to be in attendance, Min Ko Naing was recognized for his work as a founding member of the 88 Generation Students Group, which played a key role in Burma’s 2007 Saffron Revolution. As chairman of the All-Burma Federation of Student Unions, Min Ko Naing was at the forefront of the 1988 uprising, prompting the New York Times to describe him as Burma’s “most influential opposition figure after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi”.
Min Ko Naing chose not to attend the ceremony in order to show solidarity with other members of the 88 Generation Students Group who were at the time still awaiting to be issued passports by the government.“We all applied for our passports six months ago. Unfortunately, I was the only one to get a passport.” explained Min Ko Naing in a video message. “As someone who has been fighting for equal citizenship rights for all, I cannot accept this passport while other former political prisoners are denied to carry it.”
McCain commended the recipients—and the democracy movement of Burma as a whole—for their devotion.
“The cause of freedom in Burma has many mothers and fathers, many who have given everything, absolutely everything for the sake of the country they love,” said McCain. “If Burma has such people, especially those such as the ones that we honor today, I have faith that justice will conquer cruelty; that democracy will conquer tyranny; that love will conquer hate; and that freedom will reign in Burma and everywhere else.”
Maria Otero, undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights for the Obama administration, agreed.
“None of us are naïve enough to think that the challenges that lie ahead will be simple ones,” said Otero. “As we see across the world, democratic transitions are often filled with uncertainty, unpredictable challenges, and often backsliding. Yet, with commitment and perseverance, our work to plant the roots of democracy will grow stronger and will grow deeper.”
The NED’s Democracy Award is based on the Goddess of Democracy, the large statue that arose in Tiananmen Square during the 1989 student protests in Beijing.
“I’m very fond of this award because it has another example of people using their democracy to promote democracy elsewhere,” said Pelosi. “It’s such a remarkable symbol to the world.
Following the presentation of the award to the 2012 recipients, Gershman and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright awarded Suu Kyi a similar statue.
The wooden carving was originally presented to Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy in May 2000, on the tenth anniversary Burma’s stolen elections, after which the NLD closed and Suu Kyi barred from entering the government.. In 2000, Suu Kyi was unable to accept the award in person, as the government had denied her a passport until this year.
“Never give up,” declared Albright upon awarding the statue. “Make sure to continue your efforts … This is a very special occasion for all of us to be in the presence of these extremely brave people.”
2012 Democracy Award Honorees
Min Ko Naing is a founding member of the 88 Generation Students Group, which played a key role in the 2007 Saffron Revolution. He rose to international prominence for his leadership role in the pro-democracy protests in 1988 (popularly known as the “8888 Uprising”), during which time he was chairman of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU). The New York Times has described him as Burma’s “most influential opposition figure after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.” Both the 8888 Uprising and 2007 Saffron Revolution were violently repressed by the military regime. As a key leader of both, Min Ko Naing spent the majority of the last 20 years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement. He was released on January 13, 2012, in a mass presidential amnesty. During the past two decades, Min Ko Naing has received numerous international awards for his courage, conviction, and dedication to nonviolence and democracy. These awards include the 2009 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights; the 2005 Civic Courage Prize, which he shared with Anna Politkovskaya and Munir Said Thailib; the 2000 Homo Homini Award from People in Need; and the 1999 John Humphrey Freedom Award, which he shared with Dr. Cynthia Maung.
Hkun Htun Oo is a leading politician from Burma’s Shan State and Chairman of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) party. Following the 8888 Uprising, he ran in the 1990 parliamentary elections as the head of the SNLD, which won 23 seats, the second most of any party after the National League for Democracy (NLD). After the military government annulled the results, Hkun Htun Oo continued to work for democratic change within the country, for which he was arrested in 2005 and given a 93-year prison term for treason, defamation, and inciting dissatisfaction toward the government. Amnesty International recognized him as a prisoner of conscience, and in December 2008, he was awarded honorary Italian citizenship by the mayor of Monza. In March 2011, the United Nationalities Alliance, a group representing several minorities in Burma, awarded him the Nationalities Hero prize for his “dedication and struggle for ethnic groups and national reconciliation.” He was released from prison in a presidential amnesty on January 13, 2012.
Kyaw Thu is a two-time Myanmar Academy Award winning film director and actor, as well as founder and president of the Free Funeral Service Society (FFSS), which, since 2001, has provided free funeral services to more than 110,000 people across Burma. In addition, FFSS operates a free clinic for the poor, supports scholarships, organizes vocational and computer trainings, and helps to meet the health needs of former political prisoners. A leading man in Burmese cinema in the 1980s and 1990s, Kyaw Thu gradually turned his attention to social work, and by serving as volunteer president of FFSS, became one of the most prominent members of Burma’s civil society. In 2007, he and his wife were arrested after publicly supporting the Saffron Revolution, after which he was banned from the film industry. After his release, Kyaw Thu and FFSS played a vital role in rescue and fundraising efforts in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which devastated Burma’s Irrawaddy delta and cost over 130,000 lives in May 2008.
Dr. Cynthia Maung is an ethnic Karen medical doctor and founder of the Mae Tao Clinic in Mae Sot, Thailand on the Thai-Burmese border. She founded the clinic soon after fleeing to Thailand in the aftermath of the 8888 Uprising, where she works with a staff of over 700 people to provide medical services to refugees, migrant workers and orphans. The clinic receives 400–500 patients daily, treating such conditions as malaria, respiratory disease and diarrhea, as well as gunshot wounds and land mine injuries. Dr. Cynthia and the Mae Tao Clinic have received numerous international awards, including the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy’s Asia Democracy and Human Rights Award, the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the John Humphrey Freedom Award, the Jonathan Mann Health and Human Rights Award, Catalonia’s International Prize, which she won in conjunction with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and most recently, the Freedom to Create Leadership for Women Award.
Aung Din served over four years behind bars as a political prisoner in Burma after helping to organize the country’s nationwide pro-democracy uprising in 1988 as Vice-Chairperson of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), the largest national student organization and outlawed by the regime. He also served as Vice-Chairman of Burma’s Youth Liberation Front (BYLF), and as Cabinet Secretary of the Parallel Government, which was founded by former Prime Minister U Nu during the peak of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising. Amnesty International recognized him as a prisoner of conscience in 1989, and its chapters worldwide campaigned for his release. In 2003, he co-founded the Washington, DC-based U.S. Campaign for Burma (USCB), an umbrella group of Burmese dissidents in exile and American activists, where he now serves as executive director.
NED extends its sincere thanks to the generous support of our sponsors who made this and related events possible:
The Hurford Foundation
Taiwan Economic and Cultural Representatives Office in Washington, DC
The International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers
The Embassy of the Czech Republic