Imagine you are a student at a University studying political science – you are so excited for your new studies – you finally found your passion – you want to make the world a better place and you want to do this by getting involved in politics, by shaping and creating public policy for the common good.
As a student, you then discover the various political parties – what are their party platforms? What do they stand for? And you analyze if those values align with your values. You then finally decide on your party and you decide on your profession to be a ‘Policy Advisor’.
In order to test the waters, you decide to do an internship in a Congressional office to see if this is the right career move. The world is your oyster – you are able to explore – you are able to vote in your first election and most importantly you are able to get involved in political rallies and have your voice heard.
Now imagine that all this activity is illegal and by even engaging in the political process as a University student you can be arrested and thrown into jail for your beliefs.
This is the story of many former students in Burma. I recently returned after having the humbling experience to interact with political party leaders, civil society activists, professors and teachers. Each time I interacted with these amazing individuals, I began to realize their stories were so similar – many were former political prisoners. They were political prisoners for doing exactly what I did in college (the above paragraph). Simply getting politically involved in college – almost a rite of passage in the United States – it is the space where people start to identify with what they believe – not what their parents believe or friends – but what they believe. The University serves as the open space where a young person’s voice is heard; but not historically for students in Burma.
I listened to stories from young people saying ‘I was in prison for 3 years or 5 years or 7 years’. The reason? Simply being involved in politics as a student. Many of these same former political prisoners are still not able to obtain their college degree as if they are a generation in limbo.
Now, many might be very sad as they read this (as I was), but then I started to turn my sadness to inspiration – all of these individuals were an inspiration. Why? After they were released from prison – they did something with their struggle – they did not stay a victim, but they took their challenge and moved forward – it was as if they were even more inspired after their imprisonment to change Burma into a democracy. They are now succeeding and are at the front lines of changes in progress. In fact, a number of newly elected officials in parliament were political prisoners. The individuals I met with have started schools to teach political science (political science was not allowed before), initiated human rights activities, taught children about civic education, and have written books on peace. All of these former political prisoners didn’t seem to allow that experience to hold them back, but rather used it as motivation to create change.
I left the experience so amazingly and continually grateful for my individual rights and the freedom I am allowed to pursue a career (no matter what political party I supported) in an area I was most passionate. Being inspired by the people of Burma – I have returned back to the United States with even more motivation to continue to be involved in the political process, to encourage others around me to get involved, and no matter what your views are – to engage in our democracy to have your voice heard. The political prisoners of Burma are a true inspiration and a ray of hope in this dynamic time and transition. They are truly turning tragedy into change.Top