Gangatte kudasai - a Burmese phrase which means 'hang in there and persevere.'
In 1997 I had the amazing privilege of travelling with a group of young people (including myself - I was 19) to the jungle areas of northern Thailand. We were hosted there by a group of students, all of them refugees from Burma, living in bamboo camps along the river.
As is so often the case with such trips, this one was life-changing. The Burmese students seemed to have a great understanding of our lack of knowledge of international politics, and we spent 10 days under their education learning about the political situation in Burma, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and, most moving of all, the personal stories of each student and how they came to be refugees. Horrific stories, most of them and we were both shocked at what our new friends had endured and grateful that such experiences hadn't existed for us apart from in films, until now.
The students also talked about their leader, a peaceful and gracious lady called Aung San Suu Kyi. We knew a little of her story, having watched the film Beyond Rangoon before the trip, but they talked about her with such respect and awe. She was quite clearly an inspiration and a source of hope in such difficult times.
Ever since then, Burma and its various tribes and people have been of particular interest to me. We learnt while we were there that the international media hesitate to report what is happening there, largely due to oil trading, which means that most people don't think twice about the country's existence, much less a need to fight for the human rights of its people. So any stories that have cropped up have brought welcome news of a situation which feels like the story of my friends.
I blogged last year about this situation a bit, having seen The Lady, a beautiful film about Daw Suu Kyi.
Reading her book, Letters From Burma have brought back memories of our nights in that camp, sat around a camp fire hearing stories, praying for hope in a situation which felt too big for words. Written for the Japanese press over the course of a year just after her first release from house arrest in 1995, the book is a series of short chapters detailing life in Burma from the viewpoint of one who loves her country and her people deeply.
When she describes the scenery; lush green forests, coconut palms, ominously tall mountains and crystal clear rivers, my mind is back there again. We may not have set foot on Burmese land but at times we were only a few metres away, once even swimming in the river that forms the border.
As she talks her reader through the various festivals and customs in Burmese culture I'm reminded of the dances, costumes, stories and celebrations our refugee friends shared with us while we were there.
Aung San Suu Kyi also tells of the National League For Democracy - the political party which she leads and who were democratically elected to power but never allowed to take their position. She describes her NLD colleagues - men and women who stand bravely for what they believe in in the face of oppression, injustice, false imprisonment and torture at the hands of the military junta who seized control of the country, the State Law & Order Restoration Council. As she describes the bravery and commitment of these people, I am reminded of the same brave strength that I saw in the eyes of my Burmese friends as I listened to their stories and their hopes for the future of their country.
Throughout the book it is easy to see why the Burmese people love Aung San Suu Kyi so dearly. Her commitment to the freedom of her country is unwavering and she consistently meets he aggressive and often violent actions of the SLORC with grace, dignity and a subversive peace. Her refusal to be drawn into the underhand political gaming takes the power out of many of their attempts to stop the NLD. A great example of this is her description of the SLORC security detail who peer over her garden walls to keep an eye on their meetings and conferences, laughing at the political satire included in the speeches of one of her team, even when they themselves are the subject,
I am excited by the recent changes in Burma, this beautiful country being led towards freedom by this grace-filled lady. Small steps on a long road, perhaps, but steps nonetheless,
"It is the love of ordinary people, in Burma, in Japan or anywhere else in the world, for justice and peace and freedom that is our surest defence against the forces of unreason and extremism that turn innocent songs into threatening war-chants." (Letters From Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, p92)