Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Burma's Ka Hsaw Wa: RM Awardee fights for human, nature's rights

Philippine Daily Inquirer/Feature/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo
MANILA, Philippines—ONLY A SCAR remains on the right arm of Ka Hsaw Wa where there used to be a tattoo of the word “zeal” in Burmese. When he became a hunted man, he scraped it off his skin. Not many people have gone through the suffering and dangers this man went through in his youth. He has lived to boldly tell the tale and more importantly, he has made it his goal to make life better for those who continue to suffer.
Ka Hsaw Wa was only 18 when he had to flee the oppressive rule of the military junta in Burma (Myanmar). As a freedom activist, he experienced detention and torture. He later took to the jungle in order to continue the struggle.
Armed resistance was an option. But he realized there were other paths he could take and nonviolent means he could use. This was by taking up the pen, record what he had seen and bring them to the attention of the world to effect change.

Today, from a distance, he continues to be involved in his homeland, hoping that one day his people would be free.

Ka Hsaw Wa, 39, a human rights and environmental advocate, is this year’s Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Emergent Leadership. This Burmese is being recognized for “dauntlessly pursuing nonviolent yet effective channels of redress, exposure and education for the defense of human rights, the environment and democracy in Burma.”

He is only the 10th awardee in his category and the fourth Burmese among the 277 RM laureates.

The Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation (RMAF) added, in 2001, the Emergent Leadership Award that is conferred on individuals younger than 40. Starting this year, RMAF will no longer classify the older awardees into the other five categories as it did the past 50 years. This change would make the selection more expansive and inclusive.

No to arms
When the student uprising against the dictatorship in Burma erupted in 1988, Ka Hsaw Wa, then 17, was among those arrested, detained and tortured. An estimated 10,000 people were killed at that time.

After his release, he, like many others, left his family behind and sought refuge in the jungle. He saw suffering up close, listened to stories of atrocities and recorded them so the world would know.

“All they knew was to take up arms,” Ka Hsaw Wa told the Inquirer. He decided to find new ways and means.

“We have to have new tactics and approaches. There have been big debates on these in Burma,” he added.

A former British colony, Burma, a country of 48 million people, is ruled by one of the most repressive governments in Asia. A China-backed military junta reigns and rules.

Gas pipeline
Making Thailand his base, Ka Hsaw Wa continued to listen and record stories of thousands of victims. He slipped in and out of Burma’s “black areas” unnoticed.

He spoke to many victims of the building of the Yadana gas pipeline financed by the US-based Unocal and the French corporation Total.

The biggest foreign investment in Burma at that time, Yadana was a project of the military junta which was the project’s biggest beneficiary. Construction and militarization caused the displacement of communities and the destruction of ecological diversity. Forced labor was imposed.

In 1992, Ka Hsaw Wa met visiting American law student Katie Redford who had entered to Burma to investigate human rights abuses.

They worked together and founded EarthRights International in 1995. They also became husband and wife.

One of EarthRights’ first urgent tasks was to file a case in the United States against Unocal. EarthRights accused Unocal of complicity with the military in committing environmental and human rights abuses.

The litigation took almost 10 years but there was victory at the end of the pipeline, so to speak. Unocal compensated the victims—petitioners who then committed part of the funds for humanitarian purposes.

Back to school
With that victory, a message and a warning had been delivered to Burma’s military government and foreign investors.

Inspired, Ka Hsaw Wa set out to investigate more projects in Burma and the larger Mekong region. Megadams and the Shwe natural gas pipeline were put on the watch list.

Despite the work, Ka Hsaw Wa found time to continue his education. “I was only a high school graduate when I left Burma,” he said.

He earned a bachelor’s degree equivalent from Vermont State University in the United States in 2003 and a master’s degree in intercultural leadership management from the School for International Training in Vermont in 2006. He used his new knowledge to further his causes.

Ka Hsaw Wa said he was once among those who had lobbied for economic sanctions against Burma. However, “because of those sanctions many lost their jobs.”

He said he would not oppose the coming election, hoping for “some kind of change.”

Ka Hsaw Wa is presently the director of EarthRights, which has offices in Thailand and the United States.

EarthRights is the meeting of human rights and the environment, combining the power of the law and the power of the people.

EarthRights Schools have been established in Thailand to train the young from Burma and other countries to be agents of change.

Of democracy leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese icon who has been under house arrest for almost two decades, Ka Hsaw Wa said: “She cannot give up.”

Asked if it would be better for her to leave Burma, he said: “No, the people’s spirit will die if she does.”

Pining for home
A proud member of the Karen tribe (one of the three major cultural groups in Burma), Ka Hsaw Wa is sometimes referred to as the “White Elephant.”

Very energetic and articulate, he would make a strong leader in his country.

He said he pined to go home to a free Burma. The longing was evident. His mother had visited him in Thailand, he said, but his father passed away without them seeing each other again.

“I miss speaking my language,” he said. “I miss eating food with my people.”