April 18, 2021

An Exclusive Interview With Zoya Phan

11 June 2010: [CG Note: Zoya Phan, International Coordinator of Burma Campaign UK (BCUK), is a well-recognised Karen activist, tirelessly travelling and campaigning for freedom, human rights and democracy in Burma.

Born and grown up as a refugee in the remote jungles of Burma to the Karen ethnic nationalaity, Zoya Phan was eventually able to escape, first to Bangkok and then, with her enemies still pursuing her, in 2004 she fled to the UK and claimed asylum.

Zoya phan has appeared on countless channels of the world’s media, testifying her own experience of the brutalities inflicted upon the peoples of Burma by the military regime.

In this exclusive interview conducted by Van Biak Thang of Chinland Guardina, the 29-year-old talked about her recently-published biographical book, her recent trip to the US meeting with officials, and more about Burma crisis as well as ethnic issues.

Chinland Guardian: Recently you met in the US with US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, who returned from Burma meeting detained democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi. How was the meeting?

Zoya Phan: My meeting with US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell went well. He told me about his trip to Burma and how he was disappointed over the response of the dictatorship. The regime was not interested in democratic reform and showed no sign to positively engage with the U.S government.

I told him about my recent trip to Burma and the human rights situation in ethnic areas, my meeting with survivors of mortar bomb attack and a victim of gang rape by Burmese army soldiers. He was aware of the situation in ethnic areas.
It was very clear that the dictatorship in Burma are not diplomats and they don’t respond to a soft approach. They will take the U.S approach seriously only if there is strong pressure with timelines, benchmark and consequences. In addition, engagement with Burma should be high level and it is very important to include genuine representatives from ethnic nationalities.

When I asked about the next step for U.S-Burma policy, Kurt replied saying he would look into the commission of inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Chinland Guardian: You have just launched the US version of your autobiographical book ‘Little Daughter’. Did it go well and what is the response compared to the UK and Europe?

Zoya Phan: The US edition of my autobiography is called “Undaunted”, published in May 2010. I was in the US briefly for the promotion of my book. It was featured in national and international media including Burmese media. I am very pleased indeed that it went well both in US and Europe.
Chinland Guardian: Your book has been well received and acclaimed as ‘well-written and extremely moving first-hand account’ of a refugee from Burma. What actually prompted you to write this book?

Zoya Phan: I decided to write this book to tell the world about the situation in Burma and our struggle for freedom. I believe the struggle in Burma could reach out to a wider audience through my book. Although my book “Little Daughter” and “Undaunted” are about me, in reality it is about Burma. I would like to use it as a window, which people can look through to see what is going on in the country.

I have been travelling to many places across the world and I was astonished that not many people know or pay attention to what is going on in Burma. Even those who do know a little rarely know what is going on in different ethnic areas. I would like my book not just to inform people but also ask them to take action to bring about change in Burma.

Chinland Guardian: It is unarguably accepted that the Karen people have most suffered from the brutal attacks by Burma’s military regime for decades, needless to mention the sufferings of other ethnic nationalities in Burma. Tell us more about the reasons why the Karen are most targeted.

Zoya Phan: Everyone in Burma suffers under military dictatorship. Ethnic people suffer the most from all forms of human rights violations committed by the dictatorship including, beheading, mutilating, crucifixion, people burnt live, rape, torture, arbitrary execution, and slave labour. The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights has recently said the situation deserves to be investigated as war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The Karen people had long been persecuted under Burman kings. If a Karen person was found to be literate he or she could be executed. During the Second World War, the Karen sided with Britain as well as the Chin, Kachin, Arakan and others. The Karen were promised by Britain to be granted an independent state after the war. But along with other ethnic groups, we were betrayed and the attack against Karen people escalated right after Burma got independence. The failure to grant ethnic autonomy by central government at that time resulted in decades of oppression and attack against Karen people until now. But the Karen will continue to resist until there is real freedom in Burma.

Chinland Guardian: Some sources revealed that the military regime poisoned and broke down the unity of Karen people by sending ‘undercover’ Buddhist monks into Karen State.

Zoya Phan: In early 1990s, the regime sent a Buddhist monk to divide Karen people using religious tools. The monk wanted to build pagodas in the frontline that could give away positions of Karen resistance army. Karen leaders could not accept it and they also knew the monk was used by the regime. Later on the monk accused the Karen National Union, which is the main resistance group for the Karen people, of violating religious freedom against Buddhism. With some soldiers the monk formed Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and joined with the dictatorship.

The DKBA are not given real freedom to develop and improve the life of the Karen people. Instead, they have to operate under orders and restriction of the dictatorship. After realising the mistake, some DKBA members are now coming back to the mother organization the KNU.

Chinland Guardian: The Chin people, especially Christians, are deeply indebted to the Karen. The Karen preacher-teachers, who worked really hard alongside the American missionaries in Chin State in the early 1900s, were the ones who actually converted the Chin to Christianity. Now it is estimated that more than 80 percent are Christians. There has been growing concerns that the unity of Chin people will be disintegrated by the military regime using the religious means, Christianity.

Zoya Phan: The regime always tries hard to divide and rule as they do with the Karen, the Shan, the National League for Democracy, the European Union and the rest of the international community. They use every tool including pressure, bribes, offering lies and false hope. We shouldn’t let ourselves fall for their trick and fooled by their game. They will play in whichever way they can including political, economic and religious affairs.

As freedom is essential for every individual, freedom of religion is also very important. Loving our religion doesn’t mean we have to discriminate against other religions. Within a society /community as well as a country with different ethnic and religion diversity, it’s important that we are all tolerant and understand each other. Extreme religious views will not be healthy for any society.

A good example is in the United Kingdom, as there are different race, ethnic and religions. But they can all live together in harmony because they have a tolerant society where people understand and respect each other and are treated fairly under the rule of law.

Chinland Guardian:
Ethnic issue in Burma is not a minor but a major political matter. The military regime has been propagandizing both directly and indirectly for the systematic disintegration of the ethnic nationalities. As a well-known campaign activist, what would be your advice to the ethnic nationalities of Burma across the world?

Zoya Phan: It is very important to understand the history of Burma from different perspective and why ethnic people wanted their own autonomy. We need to educate ourselves, our children and other people about our history. I really hope that people in Burma can freely join together to learn about each other’s situation and develop our understanding, respect and learn how to live in peace together.

In exile, although we are very far from our homeland, we can still do to help our people. We can come together to organize ourselves, form communities in respective countries and make it strong, raise awareness about our people, maintain our culture and get governments around the world to take strong action on Burma. We need to speak out to have our voice heard and work together along side with the rest of the democracy movement toward a true federal Burma.

Chinland Guardian:  Tell us your views on the Panglong Agreement.

Zoya Phan: Ethnic nationalities believed that within their own autonomy they will be safe from various oppression and their people can live in peace. And they thought that Panglong Agreement would guarantee this peace and security.

However, the democratically elected government, at that time U Nu government failed to stick with Panglong Agreement and to grant ethnic people their respective self-rule. The government continued its policy of Burmanization, which is one blood, one race and one command. And the attack against ethnic minorities escalated throughout the country. This policy continued with subsequent governments and under military rule.

Given the fact that the regime uses ethnic diversity and disintegration as an excuse to maintain its grip on power, until and unless ethnic issues are properly addressed, there can’t be genuine peace and prosperity in the whole country.

It has been more than six decades since Burma established Panglong Agreement for a federal Burma. But ethnic civilians are still under attack by ruling regime. We must work hard to continue the struggle for a genuine federal Burma to guarantee rights and equality for all. Regardless of our ethnicity, religion, gender and race, we all are equal and should be treated equally.

Chinland Guardian:
You have been widely seen as the icon of Burma while some criticise that you have been speaking only for the Karen, not for the whole country.

Zoya Phan:
I strongly believe that only if there is freedom for all the people of Burma there will be real freedom for the Karen, the Chin and other ethnic nationalities. Based on the principles of human rights and democracy, we should work together for all the people of Burma.

It’s not true that I only speak for the Karen. I know that there are many challenges in the work that I do. We shouldn’t let these challenges determine or disturb our works. We should focus to win back our freedom. Of course I am aware of the critics as well as the praises. It is because I am a woman; I am young, and most of all because I am from ethnic background.

I have a privilege to work with people from different part of Burma including Chin at Burma Campaign UK and I’m very inspired by Burma’s different culture, tradition, language, food and identity. I think Burma is very beautiful and a fascinating country with its diversity.

For example, Taungzalat (rhododendron) flowers and the hornbill bird are the symbols of the Chin people. Manau, a large gathering for dancing to show unity, is the national festival of the Kachins. It is a symbol of the Kachin and stands for the high value of Kachin cultures. Similarly in Karen, we have ‘Klo’ which is Karen drum and we have it on our national flag and we drum it in our special occasion such as Karen New Year and Karen wrist tying ceremony.

Chinland Guardian: The military regime, now with a new party under its leadership ‘Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)’, is determined to go ahead with its planned election. A total of 37 parties so far are said to have submitted their applications to function as political parties including recently approved Pa-O National Organisation and Kokang Democracy and Unity Party, while political parties in exile are opposing the election as being ‘not free and fair’. Do you think the regime will be happy to see the political parties inside Burma and abroad are not united?

Zoya Phan: We need to understand, the dictatorship in Burma has always played on divide and rule with all its opponents including ethnic nationalities, and this continues with the elections. Most of those people setting up political parties for the 2010 fake election seem to be close to the regime one way or another. Some people may be genuinely thinking that they will be able to bring some change by setting up parties to take part in elections, some may be because of regime’s pressure, but they are being fooled and used by the dictatorship.

Through out Burma’s recent history, we learnt that constitutional change in 1974 did not bring change, and that elections in 1990 did not bring change. I do not believe that the elections due in 2010, and the new constitution that comes into force after those elections, will bring genuine change either.

The only intention for the dictatorship is to maintain their political and economic control over the whole Burma even if it meant to change from military dictatorship to civilian dictatorship. MPs can be arrested if they call for democratic change, the constitution bars any record of it in Parliament, the media will continue to be censored and would not be able to report what happen in parliament anyway.

It is important to stand firm under democratic principle and work for genuine peace for all the people of Burma.

Chinland Guardian: Since 1962 when Ne Win led a military coup, Burma has been successively ruled by the same regime. Several UN envoys have been sent to Burma, but with no tangible solutions. The regime seems to know well enough how to play with the western ideology. Do you think it is time to change the way the regime is approached?

Zoya Phan: The democracy movement in Burma has always called for increased pressure against the dictatorship in Burma. Different methods have been tried and they include peaceful protest, armed struggle, elections, and several proposals for National Reconciliation.

In addition, ethnic and mainstream democracy movement have repeatedly said that the way forward for Burma is tripartite dialogue, which involves democratic parties lead by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, genuine representatives of ethnic nationalities, and the dictatorship. The United Nations Security Council, General Assembly, Human Rights Council and the Secretary General himself have all agreed that this is what is needed.

However, history proves that the dictatorship are not interested in reform. They do not respond to soft approach like UN and ASEAN style. The only times the regime responded were when there was pressure. For example, when Cyclone Nargis hit Burma, the dictatorship blocked humanitarian aid to be delivered to victims in Irrawaddy Delta. Only after UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon went to Burma himself, and talked to the generals, they did open up a bit to international aid agencies. But there was not strong enough pressure to get the regime to lift the restriction of aid delivery in other parts of Burma. 

It’s time to see a UN commission of inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Burma’s dictatorship. And we need to see a global arms embargo and a well-coordinated international action against the regime to force them into reform. International community can’t continue to permit impunity to the dictatorship in Burma. There should be a clear strong action with comprehensive timeline, benchmark and consequences.

Chinland Guardian: Share with us the current situation of the Karen people in Eastern Burma.

Zoya Phan: In March 2010, I visited Papun, Karen State and met with internally displaced people who are struggling for their daily lives.  Many of them told me they escaped from attack by Burmese regime’s soldiers after their houses were burnt down and food was destroyed. They told me, life was so difficult and it was so impossible for them to survive, that was why they had no choice but to leave their homes. Many people are hiding in the jungle without shelter, food and medicine. These people think that the regime’s fake election this year is irrelevant for them, as they do not think the dictatorship’s soldiers will stop attacking civilians.

Recently, a report produced by Karen Women’s Organisation stated that at the moment Karen women suffer much more abuses as they become village chiefs. In Karen State, men are more likely to be executed, which is why they didn’t want to become chiefs. While it is true that women are less likely to be killed, instead many are raped, or forced to watch while their villagers are killed and tortured.

Karen women suffer twice, once for being Karen, and once for being women. They are targeted for sexual violence, and have the burden of feeding their families in a country where poverty is increasing because of the policies of the regime.

However, there are people who continue resisting against attack by dictatorship, going throughout Karen State, defending people, providing assistance and saving lives.

Chinland Guardian:
Your message to the ethnic nationalities of Burma across the globe.

Zoya Phan: Because of mismanagement of the economic policy and appalling human rights abuses by the regime, life for ordinary people in Burma is so difficult. Every year, people from Burma go out to neighbouring countries to find job for their family survival. Many of our men and women have to do basic works like slaves. At the moment we have around 5 million people living outside Burma as refugees, migrant workers and illegal people. Young people end up working in factories and nightclubs, living in refugee camps without much access to health and education.

We must not forget that we have power and responsibility to do something to change the situation in our country. Now we know that the regime is going ahead with its fake election and will legalise its military rule through their constitution. Oppression will continue and the attacks against ethnic people will continue, as the elections and constitution will not bring about peace, democracy, human rights and stability to Burma.

In Europe, we are working with different organizations making sure international community rejects the SPDC’s elections and to pressure the regime to release all political prisoners and stop attacks against ethnic groups. We urge the UN to focus on implementation of UN Security Council and UN General Assembly demands that the dictatorship enter into genuine tri-partite dialogue.

We have Britain, Australia, Czech Republic and now Slovakia to support the establishment of a UN commission of inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the regime, as recommended by UN Human Rights expert, Mr Quintana.

We call for more humanitarian aid for the people of Burma and urge the United Nations humanitarian organisations and international aid agencies to put in place contingency plans for assisting refugees and internally displaced people created if the dictatorship does break ceasefires.  This should include funding for cross-border aid, which is likely to be the only way to reach many internally displaced people.

Wherever you are don’t just wait and see what will happen in our homeland. Please do something about it. You can raise awareness about what’s going on in Burma and get governments around the world to take strong action so that we all can go home and live in peace.

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