Moving Hearts and Minds and Making History in Burma

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It’s times like these that I wish I had a crystal ball.  Not only because it seems like hundreds of people have called, emailed, and walked into our offices to ask us the question that’s on all of our minds:  “What is going to happen in Burma?  What does Secretary Clinton’s visit mean?”

EarthRights has been working on human rights and environmental issues in Burma for over 15 years.  Our staff from Burma have been living Burma’s difficult history for their entire lives.  We’ve seen hopes raised and then dashed too many times to not feel a little bit gun shy this time around.  Yet in spite of the many different opinions of our staff, colleagues, friends and family members inside Burma and out, we all agree that something is happening, and change is in the air.

Hillary Clinton meets with Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma

Yes—the elections touted by the regime that brought to power this new leadership were terribly flawed; the military still dominates most political institutions and controls the economy; the army continues violent offensives in ethnic minority lands, with all of the concomitant human rights abuses.  Even the most optimistic agree that it will take a long time before any of what we’ve heard from Burma’s capital is felt on the ground by those who have suffered the most.  It took decades to build one of the world’s most notorious armies… those half-million soldiers won’t change their brutal ways overnight.

What we also know, in the midst of the unknown, are the fundamental preconditions to lasting change in Burma.  Speaking with Secretary Clinton today, Aung San Suu Kyi made this clear: “Before we decide what steps to take, we have to find out what our greatest needs are.  And of course, two of the greatest needs in this country are rule of law, and a cessation to civil war.  All hostilities must cease within this country as soon as possible.”

We at EarthRights couldn’t agree more.  We’ve seen firsthand the suffering caused by a rogue regime attacking its own people in violation of any standards of law or human dignity.  Any credible change in Burma must begin with a sincere, multi-stakeholder peace process, and widespread reform of the country’s laws and institutions.  Aung San Suu Kyi’s words today held special meaning for us as she stood at her home next to Secretary Clinton and said: “I am confident that the United States and our other friends will help us in our endeavors to bring rule of law to this country.” We will certainly do our part to heed that call.

Yesterday, I felt a sense of exhilaration and absolute agreement when I read Aung San Suu Kyi’s words: “We have to take risks. We have to take the courage to face a future that is not really known to us.”

Today, in her op-ed in the International Herald Tribune, she talked about the kind of passion that it takes to move hearts and minds, and to make history.

We are watching that history unfold, and for years I’ve been privileged to see that passion in my friends, clients, students, colleagues, staff. When I saw the images yesterday and today of Aung San Suu Kyi and Secretary Clinton, it gave me a sense of hope that I haven’t felt about Burma in years–perhaps ever. No one knows what will happen, but if anything can give courage and hope to face that unknown future, it’s those two women, and the brave people of Burma who have never given up. This is the stuff of which history is truly made.

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