Q&A with Burmese activist Aung Khaing Min 

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“I’m not a hero or extraordinary. I am a normal guy.” That's Aung Khaing Min, who, for all his strengths, may not be the best judge of his own extraordinariness. Not everyone has the courage, at the age of 15, to oppose a brutal regime, as he did in 1988 during a pro-democracy uprising in his homeland of Burma. Not everyone has spent time in prison as a penalty for speaking truth to power — Min did seven years, beginning in 1996.

Nor can just anyone bear witness to, according to Min, “killings, prolonged arrest, arbitrary detention and forced labor” and still find the energy to advocate on behalf of his people. And it may well be a rare soul who can land on his feet in a new country and connect to both disapora communities and the community at large, as he has since arriving in the U.S. in 2005 on a U.S. Department of State Burmese Refugee Scholarship.

Min, who spent those first five years in the States in Bloomington and Indianapolis, will share his extraordinarily un-extraordinary story this Thursday, Oct. 25, at the Athenaeum Theatre, during Exodus Refugee Immigration’s annual fundraiser. Exodus, the largest refugee resettlement agency in Indiana, has, for 31 years, worked with refugees from countries around the world. Just this year, the organization settled nearly 700 refugees.

Min said that he was “scared of being killed” while jailed, and that he “didn’t want to be tortured or beaten. But I loved my country and my people, and this gave me the courage to do what I had to do when it needed to be done,” he told NUVO via e-mail last week.

Min escaped to Thailand after his release from prison, working there for an organization there to raise awareness about the situation in Burma. From there, he arrived in Bloomington on a scholarship, attending Indiana University, where he earned a degree international relations. After graduation, Min worked many organizations, including Exodus, and dedicated himself to helping his friends, family and all political prisoners in Burma.

“I lived in a prison in Burma and survived the excruciating prison life,” he said. “Some of my friends remain in prison; some were re-arrested and imprisoned again; others died. They sacrificed their lives in the quest for a free and democratic Burma. As long as there are political prisoners in Burma, I will continue to work until they are all free.”
Indianapolis is home to nearly 10,000 refugees — and approximately 75 percent of those refugees are from Burma, according to Carleen Miller, executive director of Exodus. But it’s not as if a refugee’s problems are over once they land in a new country.

“If you think about it, each of these individuals aren’t only overcoming a path that has a lot of pain and a lot of suffering,” said Kristin Wright, director of development at Exodus. “They’re going down a new path with a lot of challenges.”

Here's more from our interview with Min, who is currently living in Boston, where he's pursuing a masters degree in public administration.

NUVO: What's your story? What happened to you in Burma?

As student activists, we faced many difficulties: constant threats from the authorities, and the military intelligence was always watching us and our families. We faced social exclusion, discrimination in the school system and loss of educational opportunities. I was expelled from high school for meeting with fellow students to talk about human rights and democracy in Burma.

I was involved in the demonstration calling for student rights, freedom and democracy. We opposed the Diamond Jubilee Ceremony of Rangoon University, which was being held by the regime, while thousands of students were still in prisons.

This opposition earned me seven years imprisonment. I was terrified. As an activist in Burma, you know how the military intelligence treats student activists. I knew what to expect, but it didn’t make it any less terrifying.

In prison, I met many student activists, veteran politicians, members of opposition parties and monks. We shared our own experiences and I came to know much more about the real situation in Burma.I realized the true intention of the military dictators. They wanted our brains to be rusty, to numb our intellect. Political prisoners (until 2007) were not allowed pens or paper, books or any other learning materials. Throughout my time in prison, I was determined not to let the Burmese junta dull my mind. I tried my best to study in prison, though the consequences of getting caught were severe.

NUVO: What do you want people to know about Burma and what do you want them to do with that knowledge?

If people really know about the situation in Burma, why people flee from Burma and become refugees, what they have suffered in their lives, I think they will understand the lives of those living in exile.
Leaving Burma was not easy - it was a hard choice to make. Often I feel torn: I want to be in Burma, I want to be there for my family, but I must work for my country.

The 2010 elections failed to bring true democratic change to Burma. The elections are designed to legitimate, strengthen and elongate military rule in the country. Hundreds of people are still languishing behind bars for peacefully exercising their basic civil and political rights; hundreds of thousands of ethnic people are on the run from military brutality and hundreds of thousands of people are still in refugee camps. I agree that there are some changes, but it is important to know that those changes do not meet the benchmarks yet.

We, the Burmese people, are the ones who want to see the real changes in our country most. But given the current situation, we just want to tell people not to over-cheer the deceitful changes and wait to see whether the changes occurring are leading to the right track or not. We still have a long way to reach the real changes.

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