On trek to U.N. to protest abuses by Myanmar junta
By Angela Mapes Turner
The Journal Gazette
That red-and-white striped one, with a field of 50 stars over blue? No explanation necessary.
The second flag – a yellow peacock on a blood-red background, running toward a white star – leaves many Americans stumped.
“Some people say, ‘Oh, it’s a turkey,’ ” said Athein, 35, as he unfurled the flag Thursday morning at Fort Wayne’s Triangle Park. “Some say, ‘You a Communist, or what?’ ”
Not even close. Burmese refugees Athein and Zaw Min Htwe, 27, are pro-democracy protesters who wear military camouflage but carry a message of peaceful protest.
They quit their jobs and embarked from Portland, Ore., on March 1 to raise awareness of human rights abuses in their homeland, hoping to reach New York City and the United Nations by Aug. 8. The date marks the 20th anniversary of Myanmar’s most famous pro-democracy uprising, in which Athein participated.
The men set out Thursday morning for Ohio, joined by a small group of local supporters who planned to walk a leg with them.
Raising awareness of abuses and hand delivering letters of protest to the United Nations were the trip’s original purposes. Just two months into their trip, Cyclone Nargis made landfall and added new urgency to the mission.
The cyclone caused 78,000 deaths and left 56,000 missing, according to Myanmar’s military government, which drew new criticism by at first refusing aid. The U.N., which estimates that more than 1 million storm survivors still need aid, said Thursday it has received less than half the money it needs.
Athein’s three daughters – an 8-year-old born in a refugee camp in Thailand and 6- and 1-year-olds born in the U.S. – don’t understand why he’s walking across the country. They may never see their parents’ homeland except in pictures.
But they understand him when he says he’s trying to help people, Athein said.
The men’s walk has taken them through snow in Oregon and driving rain in Nebraska. They stay with volunteers, try to walk 30 miles a day, shed a few pounds and carry petitions for supporters to sign along the journey.
May Shein, 40, a Fort Wayne factory worker who has been in the city a decade, showed up Thursday in a white T-shirt printed with a photo of imprisoned pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
May Shein still has family in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Her sister and two brothers lost their homes in the cyclone, she said.
For Min Min Htwe Nge, 33, the opportunity to walk a few miles in the name of democracy with two pilgrims was reason enough to show up Thursday morning.
“They’re heroes for me,” she said. “I cannot walk 3,000 miles.”
3,000-mile mission: Peace in Burma
For two months and three days, he has walked.
From Oregon to Oswego, he’s walked. Two flags perched on his shoulder: One, the American flag; the other, representing peace in his homeland, Burma.
Whether it’s a 90-degree Chicago summer, or a snowy mountain he’s forced to climb, Athein — who goes by only one name — will relentlessly endure it, because to him, he must.
He plans to reach New York by foot, petition in hand, to save the people in the country he fled seven years ago. The camouflage-clad 35-year-old father of three young girls walks through countrysides and city streets, more than 3,000 miles, spreading his story about the genocide, torture and the inconceivable living conditions he was lucky to escape. He walks for those who couldn’t.
“They are in a very dangerous situation,” Athein said of the people who live in the country now called Myanmar. “I showed a picture (of the tragic conditions) to my daughter. She said, ‘Why do they kill the people, daddy?’ and I could not explain.”
Almost 400,000 people have been displaced from their homes in the eastern region of Burma, due to fighting between the Burmese military and members of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army. Then recently almost 10,000 people were killed when a cyclone ripped though the Southeast Asian country, but the government refused to accept outside aid.
“This is a real story,” he said. “Not Hollywood.”
The petition in Athein’s bag calls for “members of the United Nations to make peaceful political change and reconciliation in Burma a priority, and to take all necessary steps to protect the people of Burma from the oppression and violence of the military junta.”
To date, his petition has been signed by thousands.
Athein will present the petition to members of the United Nations on Aug. 8, when he arrives in New York — 20 years to the day that the Burmese military gunned down 3,000 demonstrators in the now infamous 8-8-88 (Aug. 8, 1988) protests that, as a young boy, he was a part of.
“I tell my daughter, ‘Don’t cry, this is for you,'” he said, sipping out of his water canteen after carefully walking across the median of the Route 30 bridge in Montgomery.
Cars honked, people waved, and drivers offered well-wishes as Athein and fellow activist Zaw Min Htwe, 27, walked along Oswego streets. Through their travels, they are fed, and sometimes sheltered (depending on the day) through the generosity of people — all while keeping a 30-mile-a-day pace.
“Everything in my life, I give for peace and freedom,” he said, including an extra 15 pounds he’s lost along the way.
“You don’t need to go to LA Fitness,” Athein said with a giggle before he continued walking. “Just come on and follow me!”
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