NEW YORK—"China China, killing Burma!" chanted Burmese New Yorkers and supporters of government reform in Burma on Saturday at a rally in New York City's Union Square. As part of a campaign to boycott the 2008 Beijing Olympics, rally members collected signatures of people vowing not to attend the Olympics in China, a country that has been heavily supporting the ruling military junta in Burma.
In Burma, Buddhist monks have recently lead protests calling for government reform in face of years of political and human rights suppression by the junta. The junta's violent backlash to the peaceful protests has left at least 10 dead, although some reports put the death toll in the hundreds, and thousands arrested.
"You may be asking how can this government stay in power in a world dedicated to human rights and the principles of democracy, well I have the answer for you. The reason why is China," said Mala Htun, a professor of political science at the New School university, addressing the crowd at Union Square—a statue of revolutionary war general George Washington behind her.
The junta is known to have close economic ties with China, providing China with natural gas and other resources while China supplies the military regime with weapons and diplomatic protection in the United Nations.
"All of us deplore this, we don't want a government like this to exist in the civilized world today. It has no place in today's world," said Htun, who is half Burmese. It is a sentiment that has been repeated in recent weeks by people from all ends of society, from First Lady Laura Bush to actor Jim Carrey to China itself in a United Nations resolution, although such a resolution is seen as more of a diplomatic maneuver for China than a genuine sentiment.
Voices from Burma
"Not less than 300 monks were killed… probably much higher," said Burmese Buddhist monk Ven Ashin Nayaka at Union Square. Nayaka, who is a visiting history professor at Columbia University, said that around 3,000 monks have been arrested and that he gets regular updates from monks in Burma.
Nayaka fled to India in 1988 after similar mass protests and a subsequent massacre. He insists that boycotting the Olympics in Beijing is not extreme. "China is indirectly killing Burmese people—monks. China should change their position immediately."
Burmese New Yorker Nay Rein Kyaw, a LaGuardia College student, said "I totally support the boycott, China supports the [Burmese military] regime." Kyaw was sentenced to ten years of imprisonment by Burmese police in 1992 after taking part in a peaceful student protest.
Now in the United States as a refugee, Kyaw spoke about his imprisonment, something that thousands of similar protesters, mostly monks, are now facing following recent arrests.
"For the first three days they didn't allow me to eat rice, food or provide anything, even water. They hit me very brutally and sometimes they shocked me with electric batons," said Kyaw. Kyaw's father, a Burmese journalist, was also imprisoned for four years by the same government in the 1960s. His crime was reporting independent information not in line with the junta.
Kyaw said that today soldiers walk on the streets of Burma, threatening arrest for anyone who protests.
A Burmese woman who preferred to only be referred to as Dwelling, in case she travels back to Burma, recalled growing up there, "To me living under the military I felt like I was living in a dark room, cut off from the international world. It was totally controlled, there are just three channels and they are controlled by the military regime. They just broadcast their propaganda."
Dwelling is Kachin, one of the ethnic minorities indigenous to Burma, who are systematically mistreated by the junta. She currently resides in Thailand where her and other Burmese women have set up organizations to help ethnic Burmese women.
"It's like hell," said Ms. Lway Aye Nang, of the Palung ethnic group in Burma. "We had an underground room. Since I was young, we went downstairs to hide whenever the soldiers came… My father used to be the head of the village. They would beat him."