Shepard Fairey's representation of Aung San Suu Kyi
Nickie Sekera sits on the U.S. Campaign for Burma's Board of Directors. About a week back, we showed the film Burma VJ, a documentary that captures the actions of Burmese Buddhist monks in the during the Saffron Revolution (a massive uprising against the military-led government that took place in September of 2007). The film was directed by Anders Østergaard and used footage shot largely on handy-cams by undercover video journalists and smuggled out of the militantly-closed country despite the risk of torture and life in jail. We were also quite lucky to be visited by U Gawsita, U Pyinya Zawta and U Agga, leaders of the Saffron Revolution, . The three are Buddhists monks, part of the All Burma Monks' Alliance (ABMA), and have been exiled from the country.
After the event we followed up with Sekera to talk a bit about her involvement with the cause, her reflections on the movement, and her thoughts about the event.
Sekera is an assistant director at SOLO, a school for wilderness medicine and, as previously mentioned, she sits on the U.S. Campaign for Burma's Board of Directors. She began working the Campaign after returning from Mae Sot, a town on the Thai-Burma border. There in 2001 and 2002, Sekera volunteered full time at a clinic open to Burmese people. Upon her return, through a series of events she describes in this interview, Sekera became the Northeast Regional Coordinator for the Campaign and she has been very active ever since.
How did the event go over at SPACE?
I think it was great. The monks loved Portland. They definitely felt the love.
I learned through Catholic Charities Maine that we had 75 Burmese refugees coming to the area at the same time. There was a Burmese woman who worked there and she was going to talk with the case workers there about Burma, so that everyone at the organization would have an understanding of the situation [in the refugees' home country]. U Pyinya Zawta [of the All Burma Monks' Alliance] and I were talking and I mentioned it and he really wanted to go over and be part of this too. It was a beautiful exchange where we had a leader of the Saffron Revolution sitting in the room with these people, and while a lot of people there didn't necessarily even know what the revolution was, it didn't matter. He was showing concern for his fellow Burmese citizens that were coming here. That was kind of sweet; he just wanted to help and advocate. It was definitely a precious moment in addition to everything else that happened.
A lot of people ask me why I do this, and it's because my work on this issue has been full of that kind of serendipity since day one. All of these doors open, I am able to recognize that and walk through them, and then I am amazed again. It's just offered a string of those type of events.
What is your relationship to Burma VJ?
I'm connected with it only because I am friends with the monks who had come here and were featured in the movie. I've been working with George Schmalz of Oscilloscope Laboratories helping him to promote the movie.
I remember as the Saffron Revolution was happening – I was involved of this information system because of how connected I am with the movement – I was seeing a lot of those clips very early on and being impressed by them. I was very excited when I heard about this film maker who was going to create a documentary out of them. As I knew what was being created, I had become excited to think about how this story was going to unfold in the context of a documentary.
Why should our readers be concerned with what is going on in Burma right now?
The situation in Burma is so complex, if we can solve the problems there, and everything that's tied into the country and the issues there, there is not a situation on this planet that we won't be able to overcome.
There are so many different aspects to this movement. When I'm talking with someone about it [for whom it is a new topic], I try to find out what their particular social interests are. What makes them tick and what moves them? Generally, there is something about Burma – about the environment, trafficking, forced labor, disease and AIDS issues, there are so many different aspects going on there – that could hook nearly anybody to the cause.
I recently attended the Personal Democracy Forum where I had sat in on panels - as well as talked with a lot of different professionals - about the importance of using video to convey the importance and intensity of an issue or an organizational mission. Were the reactions you saw at the showing of Burma VJ similarly important?
Definitely. Like I told [Burma VJ Director] Anders Østergaard, this film is a gift to the Burma movement. To be able to provide that visual and that real experience is a gift. He did an amazing job at doing that, and from what I know about the depiction based on the reports from people active in the movement, it's really accurate. I'm thankful for it. I've always favored reality over something that's contrived.
A lot of people around me have an idea about what I do, but I don't force it on them. That really helped them get a piece of that understanding. After seeing it, the way they talked about the issue afterward and their demeanor had changed. I think the visual aspect of becoming connected to something is critical. There is something about the video that adds another dimension to understanding.
And of course, having the monks here helped to create that personal, physical understanding and connection. That really topped it off. I like to provide that when I can, and it's been difficult to do because of the security issues associated with putting a face to the issue.
The monks aren't representing for political issues; they're doing it out of concern for human rights. They don't take part in political conversations. I saw this last week while at the [Burmese American Democratic Alliance]. They're there only for mediation if necessary, and getting conversations on track. It's really amazing what they're doing by creating a safe space in which these larger conversations can come together.
What is the larger role of technology in the movement?
I've been observing [Burmese advocates' exchanges] online to see how they're using technology by seeing how and where they post, what they choose to post and their overall level of activity. This is primarily on Facebook because I help build networks on Facebook and I watch over them out of curiosity.
Burmese people are interesting because a lot of them have been taught a sense of mistrust within their culture based on its closed environment and military machine. That's why the government has been able to maintain power. General Than Shwe is a psychological warfare specialist and has used these tactics to stopping all resistance. He has done this by creating mistrust and fracturing the democracy movement by pitting all the ethnic groups against each other. It's been going on for so long that he's been successful so far in destroying movement unity and this has sustained a core power for the military. He's really created these deep chasms of mistrust.
Online, there are a lot of people who haven't been exposed to education outside of that experience, so why would they trust Internet communication? Everything is monitored. It seems like most people have email addresses and they use them, but the idea of Facebook or the idea of Twitter is just off the elders' radar. A few of them kind of have an idea, but I think generally for them it just isn't really in their scope of possibilities yet.
This was even noticeable at the Burmese American Democratic Alliance, which was really the first meeting of it's type. An invitation went out to all democratic forces in the Burma movement and not everybody sent representatives because of the deep chasm of mistrust and the history of not wanting to work on these alliance issues because of ego and various other cultural and historical reasons. But for those who showed up, it was a really interesting conference. There was good dialog and people actually, without fear, challenged each others' ideas. This was the first time we had seen this, and upon leaving it was interesting to see attendees' attitudes because people actually really felt something could come of this.
I've asked why someone reading this post should be interested in the region, but what is your connection to and interest in this movement? What initially drew you to it?
Burma wasn't even in my periphery at all until a friend of mine took me to Southeast Asia back in 2000. She was in a leadership position at an organization called Global Women's Exchange, which gives educational opportunities for women to get out of the sex trade industry. We did some project site evaluations in Southeast Asia – we visited two countries and six sites – but there was one coastal town in Thailand called Pattay, which wasn't that large, but it had over 30,000 sex workers. We were going into the venues and they were explaining trafficking in Southeast Asia. One of the people showing us around was Burmese and, knowing a little bit about their history, I could understand the reasons why people would have come form Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, but I noticed a lot of Burmese people and realized I knew nothing about Burma. While there I asked a Burmese person about it but they didn't want to talk about it. They said that I wouldn't understand and that it will never change. I could tell there was some gravity with that question so I respected their wishes and didn't inquire any further.
Upon returning home I started to do my homework. I was just dumbfounded by the fact that I thought that I was politically and socially aware about global issues, but Burma wasn't even a blip on my radar before then. My partner at the time had put off doing his senior project because we had met and he had done all of his work over seas, so we had this idea to go overseas together and work on some stuff in Burma. We found a clinic that operated right in Mae Sot, right on the Thai-Burma border. It was started by a woman who was a doctor and was involved with the 1988 uprisings. It was far enough on the Thai side so that mortars couldn't hit, and ever since 1989, she's been seeing between 250 and 300 patients a day coming in from all over Burma. No questions are asked, and she doesn't care where you stand politically. You don't talk politics there. You go and find medical treatment. It was a very organic, dynamic clinic. They had eight different departments like childhood and maternal health, traumatology, prosthesis. It is really an amazing place.
For how long were you there?
I was there for not quite a year. This was back in 2001 and 2002.
We went as freelance volunteers, which allowed for really interesting opportunities because we didn't have to stick to the politics of any one organization. We were kind of filling in the gaps where NGOs really needed it, doing anything from teaching grant-writing to teaching math to Burmese journalist dissidents, and a handful of other things.
After you returned to Maine, how did you decide what you would do next?
It took us a long time for us to process everything we had learned. We also had aspirations of touring Southeast Asia and learning about the region, but we were working 60 hours a week volunteering. We immediately felt as though we connected with the cause. Before I figured out what I was going to do, we bought some laptop computers, which journalists were able to give to universities, because when people make $250 dollars a year, a laptop is out of reach.
Then one day I Googled " Bo Kyi," the name of a friend we worked with while overseas. He is one of the founders of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma and he tracks all the political prisoners, and which prisons they've been moved to. As a political prisoner, they don't keep you in one prison. When you're in prison, your family is responsible for providing food, so they try to keep political prisoners far away from their families so there is no support and so families can't report on prisoner health conditions. This site offers an underground way to keep track of that type of information. I Googled his name because we'd worked with him on the border and found that he was speaking at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. While seeing him, I connected Simon Billenness from the Campaign for Burma, and in talking with him he suggested that I should consider joining them.
Many, many thanks to Nickie Sekera for taking the time to talk with us about her background in and support of the Burma movement.
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