Ithaca College Quarterly 2004/4
Burmese Freedom Fighter

 

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In Burma Lin helped organize demonstrations in defiance of the dictatorship and taught mathematics -- and democracy -- to middle school students.

Not a day goes by in which Han Lin does not think about Burma and the oppression of his compatriots. This fall he turned those thoughts into extreme action. In support of Aung San Suu Kyi and all struggling Burmese citizens, Lin and two refugees living in Fort Wayne, Indiana, staged a long march and a hunger strike. Starting from Grafton, New York (near Albany), on September 1, the trio walked 188 miles along secondary roads to New York City. There they pitched tents and camped outside United Nations Head quarters. At the start of the 59th General Assembly session on September 21, while heads of states met inside, they and four other Burmese refugees began their hunger strike.

Their goals? To win the release of Suu Kyi and all Burmese political prisoners and to get UN general secretary Kofi Annan to organize an international conference on Burma. Their promise to themselves? To see the strike through to one of two conclusions -- either satisfaction that their demands were being met, or death.

It's hard for most of us to imagine that kind of determination and commitment, especially when the person is putting his life on the line for an uncertain outcome. But Han Lin never wavered. "I miss my job and my friends and my family," Lin said on the second day of the hunger strike, "but I have to focus on working to protect people in Burma -- for peace and freedom."

The efforts of Lin and his fellow protesters did not go unrecognized. On the 9th day of the hunger strike, Stuart Holliday, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, met with them, saying, "The United States has been doing everything it can and will continue to work with the United Nations for democracy in Burma." He added, "We are concerned about the health of those staging the hunger strike." Holliday also announced that Kofi Annan had agreed to organize an international conference on Burma. The next day, an official from the White House called to express the concern of the U.S. government for the health of those staging the hunger strike. After more talks, and convinced that the Burmese had been placed high on the UN agenda, Lin and the others officially ended their hunger strike on the 12th day with a ceremony attended by Burmese prime minister Win.

Tayza, who turned 21 in October, says that although he and his family were naturally concerned about his father's well-being, they respected his decision to join the march and the hunger strike -- even if it meant he would not return to Ithaca alive. "He has a passion for our country," Tayza says, noting that inequalities in Burma are multigenerational and still affect Lin's parents, who remain there. "I can understand why he wants to give his life. I respect him. We really, really support our dad. We really, really support the Burmese people who are struggling to get freedom."

Like her younger brother, May recognizes her father's dedication, despite her own frustration with the lack of progress in restoring democracy to Burma. Her father made his resolve clear to the family before he left Ithaca. "That's how I know my father; he has always sacrificed himself for others," says May. When he left Ithaca to begin the march, she feared that the hunger strike would be the last sacrifice he would make. "He told me that he can't sit down to eat while people are starving in Burma," she says. "After all we have been through, I really didn't want to block him."

One experience in particular inspired May to pursue a health sciences degree. Along with so many other refugees who had crossed the border into Thailand, she had contracted malaria. She nearly died. Ithaca College was May's first choice not only for its School of Health Sciences and Human Performance, but also for its proximity to her family.

Like his older siblings, exploratory student Thuya admires his father's dedication. "I feel that it was good for him to do what he did because that's what he believes in," he said. "I was very glad that he came back." next

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