While diplomats and academics met at the General Assembly of the United Nations on the East Side of Midtown Manhattan, the Asia Society hosted "Voices from Burma," an event honoring the stories of Burmese refugees and political prisoners.
Actor and playwright Wallace Shawn, actor Kathryn Grody, writers Amitav Ghosh and Deborah Eisenberg, and former political prisoner Law Eh Soe read from Nowhere to Be Home: Narratives from Survivors of Burma's Military Regime. Veteran journalist, educator, and current Director of the Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations Orville Schell opened and closed the event.
The stories in Nowhere to Be Home are first-hand accounts of refugees who have survived displacement within and across Burma's borders, who have witnessed the destruction of thousands of ethnic minority villages, and who witnessed their home become a country with one of the largest fleets of child soldiers in the world.
The book is the seventh title in the McSweeney's non-profit Voice of Witness publication series, and executive director Mimi Lok helped curate the event.
“It’s impossible not to be engaged and moved by these stories,” Lok said. “Hopefully people will be compelled to encourage the United Nations to make sure the work is being done to investigate these abuses.”
The event concluded with a prayer by U Agga, a Theravada Buddhist monk and Burmese refugee. Facing the packed auditorium and joined by monks U Gawsita and U Pinyar Zawta, U Agga repeated three times: “May there be no deception of one another. May love and kindness envelope the world and may there be peace on earth.”
The issue of human rights in Burma has been a long-standing debate at the U.N. Sixteen member states currently support a U.N.-led Commission of Inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity in Burma, including the United States, Australia, Canada, France and the United Kingdom. Others argue open political and economic engagement with Burma is a better strategy.
Below listen to Amitov Ghosh and Deborah Eisenberg read the oral histories of Aye Maung and Fatima. Closing remarks by Orville Schell. Burmese refugee U Agga ends with his oral history narrative and Theravada Buddist prayer.
The words of survivor Khin Lwe on the complex beauty of Burma, read by actor Kathryn Grody: "One day when I was a child, I was playing with some fruit. My mom had never let me eat this fruit before, because she was worried I would choke on the seeds. But I accidentally broke the fruit open and I saw it was ripe, so I tasted it. It tasted so sweet. The situation in Burma is like that. The people don’t even know what the fruit is, but when they start to learn and become concerned about the issues in Burma, then they will start to understand how sweet the fruit can be."
Survivor Hla Min remembers life before abandoning his post in the Burmese military. His words as read by Wallace Shawn: "While we were on the front line, our officers ordered us to completely destroy the local people. They told us that even the children had to be killed if we saw them. I saw soldiers abducting young girls, dragging them from their houses and raping them. At the time, I felt that those girls were like my sisters."
Executive director of Voice of Witness Mimi Lok on publishing first-person narratives: "We approach the architecture of an oral history narrative in the same way we might approach a short story—but underpinned by our responsibility to journalistic integrity. So we make sure everything is fact checked and accurate."
The Asia Society event was sponsored by the Pen American Center, the Open Society Foundations, Voice of Witness and the Magnum Foundation. Video work by Magnum photographers Chien Chi Chang and Lu Nan with James Mackay were presented throughout the evening.