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Faith in Practice

Doing Whatever You Can

Hannah Kowszun

As a teenager in Burma, Zaw Luu Aung saw his father imprisoned by the military government for his political beliefs. Now a human rights student in the UK, he gives talks on his home country and continues to campaign for political change there.

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I 'm Burman Burmese and a Christian, due to ancestry, which is rare. Most Burmans are Buddhist, so I'm part of 0.1% of the population. Growing up, we weren't strict in terms of Christian disciplines but we were very religious. We had nightly devotions, we went to church every Sunday and my mum would go to dawn prayer every day except Sunday.

Burma is ethnically very mixed and geographically complicated. The Burmans live in the middle of the country and they're surrounded by all the ethnic tribes. So although we were a religious minority, we weren't much harassed. We were much more fortunate than some in terms of human rights and, but for my father's political career, there was no reason for the government to come knocking. We did not represent an immediate threat, in the context of religious persecutions, but of course Christians in the ethnic regions did and it was a reality for them.

I was born in 1984. The military government was in power and it was only five years before the big nationwide uprising, so things were heating up politically and people were very, very poor. The country had been isolated since the 1960s and had gone from being one of the richest countries in South East Asia to one of the poorest. In hindsight - not that I remember anything from then! - it must have been an interesting time to live.

When I was about 15 my dad was taken away and put in prison without trial for about six months. We had no idea where he was. When he came out he talked about how long some of his fellow prisoners had been there and how badly they were treated.

My dad always talked about politics and human rights when we were young, and about what it was like to live in a democratic society, which was a little strange for an eight year old kid. He was in the opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) which was a dangerous position to be in. These talks weren't about moulding me into a politically aware person, it was just the fact of who he was.

I was an adventurous kid. I was also completely fascinated with Western music, imagining what it might be like to listen to Radiohead live. That's how it all started for me coming to the UK.

One day a man visiting his parents, who were missionaries, came to my grandfather's church. He happened to be the principal of a college in London and my grandfather told him 'I've got this really annoying grandson who's crazy about English music and literature and he wants to come study in England. Can you make it happen?' Four years later I was able to go to their sister university on a scholarship in  the USA to get enough credits to qualify for the English university where I studied.

I had to explain to people in the USA and England where Burma is; they thought it was somewhere between Iraq and Korea. However when I got to London I found a lot more people who were able to show interest. I would be invited to do talks and share my experiences and thoughts.

You can't underestimate the intelligence of the military government in creating a set of circumstances where the NLD had to choose between long-term goals and a practical course of action that compromised them. The government has used the pressure of the international community in their favour. When you look deep into what has happened, has there been real change, or has it simply served to legitimise the military government?

It was a good gesture, Cameron visiting Burma and asking for sanctions to be lifted. I'm glad it wasn't someone like Margaret Thatcher. It meant a lot to the Burmese people, but there's a long way to go. In the by-elections this year the NLD, including Aung San Suu Kyi, won some seats in Parliament: 43 of the 45 available (out of a total of 498 seats). It does mean something because people felt they could finally have some kind of say. But it's too early to say what it might mean for Burma's future.

There will be a point in the next few years where things will be irreversible because media freedom and political opposition is really difficult to put the lid on again. People, once they have had a taste of freedom, will do anything to keep it. My interest is in the socio-economic rights of the people. Democracy doesn't mean anything if the wealth or economic benefits don't trickle down to the poor. For me, meaningful democracy will have to distribute wealth evenly. And I hope the NLD has a similar vision.

I don't believe that you have to experience misfortune to care about human rights. Look at the human rights movement in the West, which is looking outward from a place of being fortunate. I wouldn't ask 'Why are you interested in human rights?' but rather 'Why aren't you?' I'm studying for a Masters in Human Rights now and it's mind-blowing. It's extremely hard work but interesting and stimulating, and it's relevant to Burma. I don't know what I'm going to do with it; human rights isn't something you study to get a better paid job. But then you don't need to do a human rights course to change the world.
The way I see it, the description 'human rights activist' should be universal.

Someone who does a human rights job full time is really lucky that they're able to do that and get paid. Some of my colleagues in the city work incredibly long hours and they come do our pro bono thing on Thursday evenings and work their socks off, giving 100% to clients that they do not charge. You might extrapolate that they can afford to do that, but it's like in the Gospels with the story of the widow's mite: someone who doesn't have much time is blessed when they give that time. I think people should do whatever they can.

Zaw Luu Aung was talking to Hannah Kowszun