Nearly a decade ago, I stood under an umbrella in the wet streets of Rangoon, blocks away from Aung San Suu Kyi's home. I held flowers in my hand and had plans to quietly leave them at her gate. But a military barricade blocked the street, and, as I approached, an armed soldier walked towards me shouting and gesturing with his rifle.
I had traveled to Burma as an undercover journalist, searching for clues to understanding one of the world's most enduring and heartbreaking tragedies—a tragedy that continues to worsen in the hands of a tyrannical military regime.
In 1990, after the democracy party led by Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide victory in Burma's popular elections, the shocked dictatorship nullified the results. Too afraid to kill the daughter of an independence hero they placed her under house arrest, where she has remained for 12 of the last 18 years. Frequently compared to Gandhi, it is her indomitable spirit that has given Burma's women leaders the strength to continue their efforts to free their brutalized nation.
To date, the junta has obliterated over 3,200 villages displaced more than two million civilians, and obstructed aid to millions more. In a land where an army of 400,000 is accountable to no one and has been labeled "a school for rape", the effects on women are particularly devastating. In many areas it is impossible for a woman to escape fear. At any time, troops may descend upon her village in an ethnic cleansing pogrom: Houses will be burned; those who run will be shot; food will be confiscated; adults will be kidnapped and become forced laborers, human minesweepers—and there will certainly be rape.
I have long wondered: How can this country rid itself of a military junta that is steadfastly annihilating its people while much of the rest of the world throws up its hands and refuses to intervene? Answering this question has been an epic quest, but after years of listening to the women leaders of Burma, I believe that we must pay special attention to the gathering force of Burmese women's groups. These women are following in the footsteps of Aung San Suu Kyi, one of the greatest women leaders in the world.
They are calling for her release; for a UN Security Council "responsibility to protect" resolution; for the International Criminal Court to try the Burmese top brass for crimes against humanity; and for equal voice in the current drafting of the parallel constitution. Women leaders are uniquely positioned to disperse health care, education, and leadership trainings and to accelerate the healing of the women and communities inside of Burma. If their enormous potential is realized, Burma will be poised to become a model for the world in terms of women's rights.
We all must act in support of these women leaders and the people of Burma. It will take a huge push from all sides to create the perfect storm that will topple the junta, and, just as importantly, create the structures required for sustainable reconstruction and healing. This push will likely require a combination of internal uprising and worldwide pressure that urges the UN Security Council to act and Asian nations, in particular, to forsake all financial deals with the regime.
Following Cyclone Nargis, the junta had the audacity to ask the international community for 11 billion dollars for "reconstruction." Donors are rightfully wary. Yet, instead of putting this money into the destructive hands of an illegitimate government, let us channel funds and international brain-power to the life-giving leadership work of women's networks. Let us create the space for them to gather, plan, and strategize. Let us support their efforts to empower themselves and their people so that they can lead a free Burma when the moment arrives.
If one thing is certain, rigid dictatorships do not last forever. With our support, there is no doubt that the cumulative work of the women of Burma will succeed.
I cannot fully convey to you the ache I hear in the voices of the women who are working from outside Burma. They long to return and help their people; to reunite with their families; to heal their homeland. When they speak, I can see their visions of life after the regime crumbles.
I see them flooding back across Burma's borders by the hundreds of thousands, wrapping their arms around their surviving loved ones. I see them walking their fields and mountains, planting seeds and bathing in the rivers. They will invest their every breath in advocating for the rights of women, and in promoting dialogue and collaboration between the many ethnic groups, they will begin the process of repairing their nation. They will become fierce beacons of hope in every legislature, township, and village, not unlike their mentor, Aung San Suu Kyi.
With such possibility, now is the time to join in the growing movement for a free Burma. Now is the time to join in partnership with our sisters from Burma.
As Aung San Suu Kyi herself has said,
We will surely get to our destination if we join hands.