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Beyond Rangoon

Charter Day Speaker Links Human Rights, Environmental Injustices in Burma and Beyond

By Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs
Posted April 5, 2000

The campus celebrated its 132nd birthday March 23 with traditional Charter Day elements -- academic regalia, processional music, prestigious awards and cupcakes on the plaza -- as well as an unusual keynote address by a Southeast Asian activist, still in his 20s, internationally honored for work linking human rights and environmental issues.

Amidst the blue and gold, Ka Hsaw Wa, wearing a traditional red garment, told his personal story of torture, flight, spiritual epiphany and political passion.

Born and raised in Rangoon, Ka Hsaw said he was on the verge of entering college in 1988, the year a military junta seized control of the Burmese government. Instead of starting his studies, he helped organize a national protest for human rights, democracy and an end to military rule.

Ka Hsaw Wa (whose name means white elephant, a symbol of power and truth in Burma) was arrested and tortured. Upon his release, he fled to the jungle, he said, his mind "full of hatred" for the military government.

There in the jungle, "I saw a thing that changed my whole life," he told the audience. That "thing" he saw was a dead woman with a tree branch in her vagina -- a nurse, it turned out, who had been abducted by soldiers.

Ka Hsaw Wa said he experienced a spiritual and political transformation: "I criticized myself and my desire to take revenge" and "I made my decision to choose non-violence and to document abuses."

"Some thought the only thing you could do was to take arms against the military," he told a small group of students following the event. "You are not a man, you are a gay man," he was chided. "They told me to wear a women's sarong because I choose not to fight."

In the 12 years since, Ka Hsaw Wa has documented, through interviews, thousands of human rights abuses -- including extrajudicial killings, rape, forced labor and forced relocation -- and discovered a strong link between these acts against humans and abuse of the natural environment.

Burma, renamed Myanmar by the military government, is rich in teak and rare hardwoods, gems, tigers, rhinos, hornbills and ethnic diversity. But "my country, Burma, is quickly losing its future," he said.

The speaker noted that human rights and environmental abuses are common in areas of Burma where transnational development projects are being conducted.

A founding director of EarthRights International -- a nongovernmental organization that works to unite and train human rights and environmental activists in Southeast Asia -- Ka Hsaw Wa has won the Reebok Human Rights Award, the Condé Nast Environmental Award, and the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize.




April 5-11, 2000 (Volume 28, Number 27)
Copyright 2000, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the
Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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