By Ryan Considine–
Special representative and policy coordinator Derek Mitchell gave his lecture on Asian Democracy, entitled “Reform in the ‘Golden Land’: U.S. Policy and Perspectives on Change in Burma,” on Thursday, Jan. 26, at the PNC Club of Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. The speech outlined the recent government reforms made in the last two months and newly elected president Thein Sein’s political approach.
“The big issue today of ongoing violence is the northeast with the Chin minority group and there was a cease-fire in 1994 but then that was breached June of last year,” said Mitchell during his lecture.
In 2010, a civilian government took power, removing a military regime that ruled for almost 50 years. U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell kept close watch over the military regime during that time. Following the footsteps of U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, McConnell recently made his first trip to Burma and met with Aung San Suu Kyi, a democratic activist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
“It’s interesting to talk to [McConell] and his staff about how personal this issue is to him, how committed he is largely because of Aung San Suu Kyi and how she captivated international attention because she’s this icon of democracy. She is the beacon of hope,” said Mitchell.
Aung San Suu Kyi, elected General Secretary of her democratic party, was recently released from house arrest where she spent 15 of her last 21 years imprisoned. In the 1990 general election, her party won 59 percent of the national votes and 81 percent of the seats of parliament, but she was unable to assume office because of her house arrest.
“She’s this icon of democracy, a woman who was taken away from her family. Her husband died while she was in captivity. He wanted to go back to see her one last time when he was dying of cancer and they wouldn’t let him in. Her kids were on the outside; she gave that all up for her country. As the daughter of independence leader, she felt it was her responsibility,” said Mitchell.
Government officials recently reached a cease-fire with the Karen National Union, ending one of the world’s largest ethnic battles. The government also released over 500 political prisoners.
“It’s only a cease-fire, it’s not a permanent peace settlement. There have been previous cease-fires with other ethnic groups that have come to nothing,” said Dr. Jason Abbott, Director of the Center for Asian Democracy and Associate Professor of Political Science.
The Karen is a significant ethnic group in Kentucky, with over 3,000 refugees from Burma.
“I would imagine that it might have something to do with the role and influence that Senator McConnell has had. It’s probably no coincidence that we’re seeing a sizeable number come to Kentucky,” said Abbott
Organizations like Crescent Hills Baptist Church and Kentucky Refugee Ministries have helped refugees assimilate to American culture.
“Part of what we do is work to make sure people are getting additional help. Making connections with doctors, social services and providing a lot of advocacy work,” said Steve Clark, an employee of Crescent Hill Baptist Church, “You’re talking about people who have been living in bamboo housing and who have no electricity. For many people, their first motorized vehicle is when they get on the bus from the refugee camp to Bangkok.”
Because many refugees speak no English, the church helps to educate the Burma refugees so that they can communicate and survive on a collegiate level.
“We helped the first group of Karen high school graduates to start college this year. They’re on track to go to U of L soon after they complete their college courses downtown at JCTC. ESL is designed very specifically to prepare them to be doing college coursework, particularly in reading and writing,” said Annette Ellard, an employee of Crescent Hill Baptist Church.
Photo courtesy Burmacampaign.org