Resisting Authoritarianism: Human Rights, Democracy and the Dissident Movement with Soe Aung

Soe Aung, a Burmese dissident activist campaigning for freedom in Burma, addresses the 1st Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.


Full remarks


Moderator, Ellen Bork: We turn now to Soe Aung, Burmese, dissident, and activist who was involved in the 1988 people’s uprising in Burma and has remained active outside of his country now for 20 years on behalf of freedom in Burma.

Soe Aung: Thank you very much, good morning everyone. I think it’s a good afternoon now actually. Before I talk about my personal story about the life of a dissident,  I’ve been exiled out of Burma for 20 years. Now I’m residing in Thailand. I would like to remind you a little bit about my country Burma, where there is the only living Nobel Peace Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, as my Cuban fellow dissident mentioned about. She is under detention for 13 years out of the past 18 years. And when we talk about Burma, we can’t ignore the numbers. We have at least half a million displaced people in the eastern part of Burma because of the ongoing military operations in our country. In the Burma Armed Forces there are 400,000 and at least almost 20 percent of them are child Soldiers, the highest in the world. Every one out of three children are malnourished, where the military spending of the defense budget is much higher than combined health and education. It is the only country in the region which spent on the defense budget more than the health and education combined budget. We have an infant mortality rate and under age of five mortality rate, the second highest in Asia after Afghanistan. We have many more numbers that I could mention about later. 

I was involved in the student-led uprising in 1988, where the successive military regimes in Burma, when they took power [in] 1962. And then in 88’, the people were so fed up with the mismanagement of the economy and suppression in the country. Millions of people took to the street and I joined as one of the student organizers of the uprising and protests and demonstrations. The regime responded to the peaceful demonstrations of the people around the country with the bullets. As many as three to eight thousand people died in the streets in the due course of eight months. 

What made me decide to become a dissident when I left my country [was] because I’ve seen people and my fellow demonstrators, activists, die in the street. And I thought that if I could continue to defy them in the country then I would also be one of my fellow activists, who died languishing in prison. So I left my country and I spent about three years in the jungle, where I faced my fellow colleagues dying because of diseases,  malaria, in actions fighting against the military soldiers. I myself – I have to tell you this story – had to cross the minefield with the ethnic minority troops who are helping us throughout our struggle. And the ethnic group, which are following, accompanying rather, my people, my fellow students, did not know where those landmines were laid by the other different factions against them. So I was thinking that this is the moment of my life. If I could make it across this land minefield then I could make it through anything you know in the future struggle of mine. I made it and here I am still alive and working for the cause. However, I missed many meals during the course of the struggle in the jungle. But these, all these sufferings, are nothing you know compared to my fellow activists, who are still working, struggling, defying against the military junta inside the country. There are more than 2,100 political prisoners still languishing inside the country, the prisons inside my country. 

The National League for Democracy, who is the main opposition party, which is led by Aung San Suu Kyi, many of their leaders are still languishing in the prisons in my country. I have to tell you that there are people, students, activists, bloggers, the people who helped the victims of the Cyclones – which struck Burma last year and as many as hundred and forty thousand people died, as much as 2.5 million people were displaced – the people who helped those victims of the Cyclone are also put in prisons because of their work to help the people. And the military regime never recognized the result of the elections which they held in 1990, where the opposition party and the ethnic groups won eighty percent of the votes. Eighty percent of the votes. But this result of the election has never been acknowledged and the Parliament has never been convened in my country.

So what is it to do with my dissident life with these activities? Because we, as a coalition of the youth and students and former political prisoners, women, migrant workers, are working to empower our fellow activists, especially inside the country. That the rights of the people cannot be ignored. The rights of the people, the students, the migrant workers cannot be overpowered by the military, those who have power only with their guns. Without their guns they’re nothing. So we provide capacity building training, empower them. Like for a student, reduce the bus fare to go to their schools. It’s their own right. Because in our country, the people cannot do anything. When we talk about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, almost all of the articles are not allowed for my country, which is called Burma. 

So what are the key issues that we are focusing on now? The most pressing issue that we are focusing on now is the release of political prisoners. Without this process we cannot achieve any national reconciliation in our country. We cannot have any dialogue with the military regime, which continues to oppress their own people. And next year there will be elections, which is going to be based on the regime’s unilaterally adopted constitution, which is without the consent of the people; the people tried to vote against the referendum. And also the regime’s efforts to delay the international assistance when the Cyclones hit the country purposely delayed the international community’s efforts, which may also be defined as a crime against humanity. And the [] regime’s ongoing military operations in the eastern part of Burma can also be designated as a war crime. So we are working on these issues. 

And one of the priorities, and one of the most important things I would like to draw your attention to here is that in a few days at the end of this month in April, there’ll be a European Union common position on Burma that will be adopted in the world. Thinking, reviewing Burma policy, which includes easing the pressure against the military regime, which includes the sanctions. I would like to say here that easing the sanctions, or lifting the sanctions rather, will encourage the military regime to cling onto power, which may not be helpful. Because of that, we would like to call on the international community and the people who are present here to work together with us to maintain the sanctions and work together with the people of Burma and the exile organizations and especially with the National League for Democracy and ethnic groups. 

I would like to conclude here with the remarks of Aung San Suu Kyi. Before that, I would like to draw the attention that we are carrying out the campaign called Free Burma Political Prisoners Now. Please sign. I’ve left the brochures outside. Please sign the petition. And the remark that I would like to ask here, a code here rather, is what Aung San Suu Kyi said, please use your liberty to promote ours. Thank you very much.

Speakers and Participants

Soe Aung

Soe Aung is a Burmese dissident activist who was involved in the 1988 people’s uprising in Burma and has remained active outside of his country


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