Please Use Your Liberty: Voices and Visions from the Thai-Burma Border

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Erika Berg is Community Outreach Coordinator at Refugee and Immigrant Children’s Program of Lutheran Community Services Northwest. In this role, she partners with local ethnic community leaders and the media to increase awareness of the need for culturally-sensitive foster parents for unaccompanied refugee and immigrant minors referred to the program by LIRS.

In September, 2007, the world’s attention was riveted by video footage of never-ending columns of saffron-robed monks streaming through the streets of Burma. Overnight, the government had removed all fuel subsidies, spiking food prices. Moved by the people’s despair, tens of thousands of Buddhist monks took to the streets in protest, chanting the Metta Sutta, a prayer of loving kindness.

Why I Fled
Over 3,500 villages in the ethnic minority regions of eastern Burma have been razed by the Burmese Army.

One week later, machine-gun toting soldiers swarmed the streets. Foreign news crews were banned. The Internet was shut down. Dusk-to-dawn curfews were enforced. Gatherings of more than five people were prohibited. Monasteries were raided. Monks vanished. Just like before Burma’s monk-led “Saffron Revolution,” police cracked down on anyone who dared challenge the government’s authority.

Four years after gasping aloud at an image of dozens of bloodstained monks’ robes draped from the rafters of a deserted monastery in Rangoon, my partner Daniel, 10-year-old daughter Seki Thu, and I found ourselves in Mae Sot, Thailand, the main gateway for refugees from Burma. Volunteering with resettled refugee youth in the Seattle area, we had seen how the emotions conveyed and evoked by a “visual story” could swing open

Journey to Safety
More than two million people have fled Burma as a result of outbreaks of violent conflict between the Burmese Army and ethnic minority troops, struggling to preserve their autonomy.

hearts and build bridges of understanding. Inspired by the power of an indelible image, our family had journeyed to the bustling border town of Mae Sot to facilitate visual storytelling workshops with refugee youth along the Thai-Burma border.

As refugees, the youth had fled ethnic, religious, or political persecution. They had lost family, their home and homeland. When we said we needed their help, they were visibly intrigued. Living in refugee camps, an orphanage, a shelter for child trafficking survivors, boarding houses, and Mae Sot’s city dump, the youths’ eyes sparkled – as if it had never occurred to them that their stories mattered.

Listening to youth share the stories behind their paintings, hearing the inner voice revealed and gradually emboldened by each vision, was the most humbling part of our month along the Thai-Burma border. We felt privileged that the youth had entrusted their stories – like 597 fluttering heartbeats – to our care. The closer one looks, the more urgent, the more powerful, their messages.

Since 2007, ethnic minorities from Burma have comprised Washington State’s fastest growing refugee community. To see more visual stories, please “Like” our Facebook page, Stand Up for Human Rights and Democracy in Burma. Nothing could make the youth who participated in our workshops happier than to learn that their “voices and visions” moved people to act on Aung San Suu Kyi’s plea: Please use your liberty to promote ours.


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