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“Phyoe Phyoe Aung has been arrested.” My heart sank. Three airports and over 30 hours later, I landed at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport after a two week business trip to Burma. I switched on my phone to check my email. I read the words again—“Phyoe Phyoe Aung has been arrested.”
Since Facebook is the communication tool of choice in Burma, I opened my account to see if I could get more information from the posts of my other Burmese friends. I scrolled through the newsfeed. Next to pictures of beaten and bloodied protestors posted by my Burmese friends were Buzzfeed quizzes and selfies posted by my American friends. The contrast was unsettling.
As I came to find out, local authorities violently cracked down on a large group of students protesting the recently passed National Education Law. The students are demanding greater transparency, accountability and government investment in the country’s education system, which was decimated due to decades of authoritarian rule. Phyoe Phyoe Aung serves as the General Secretary of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU)—a key member of the coalition advocating for reform.
Phyoe Phyoe has endured more struggles in her 27 years than most will know in a lifetime. In 2007, as a college student, she participated in the Saffron Revolution—an uprising against the oppressive rule of the Burmese military junta led by Burmese monks donning their signature dark red robes. Shortly after that she was arrested and imprisoned for over three years due to her involvement in the pro-democracy student movement. These experiences explain her commanding presence despite her slight stature and soft-spoken nature. When she speaks, people listen. This is rare for such a young woman in a society and culture which is still male-dominated.
These qualities were among the reasons that we selected her to participate in the inaugural class of the Bush Institute’s Liberty and Leadership Forum. This program focuses on giving young leaders in emerging democracies the knowledge and skills they need to be successful. It brings participants to the United States to study democracy and leadership for three weeks in the summer. Over the course of a year three additional trainings take place in Burma. At the end of the year, participants come back to the United States to complete the program.
Since her release from prison, Phyoe Phyoe and other former political prisoners have been prohibited from going back to school to finish their college education. The Liberty and Leadership Forum gave Phyoe Phyoe and 17 other emerging Burmese leaders the chance to study issues and subjects that were against the law to mention under the rule of the brutal Burmese junta.
In 2010, the Burmese government began to change. They embarked on a path to a more democratic and open society. This was a rare and welcome development that promised great hope for the future of the Burmese people. As we know in the United States, democracy is not easy. Often times it is messy and filled with frustration. As Winston Churchill proclaimed “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
The government of Burma must stand by its promise to realize full democracy. In doing so, it must recognize and respect the rights of individuals to freely express their views and opinions. That is true democracy. So I will wait patiently at my computer screen half a world away. Wait for the e-mail that says “Phyoe Phyoe Aung is free.”
President and Mrs. Bush issued a statement about the arrests of Phyoe Phyoe and fellow students in Burma.
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Burmese activist and 2016 graduate of the George W. Bush Institute Liberty and Leadership Program Lum Zawng was released from jail last week for his role in a December 2018 peaceful protest.
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