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Undaunted: An Interview with Zoya Phan

Her father was a pro-democracy leader and her mother a guerrilla soldier. When she was 14 years old, the Burmese army attacked her remote village and Zoya Phan ran for her life. After weeks of hiding in the jungle, Zoya and her family, members of the Karen ethnic group, ended up in a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border. There, she won a scholarship from the Open Society Institute to study in the United Kingdom. Today, at age 29, she is one of Europe’s leading human rights advocates for Burma. Her book, Undaunted, describes her struggle for freedom and survival in Burma and has just been released in the United States.

Why did you write this book?

I wrote Undaunted to tell the world about my homeland and the struggle for freedom in Burma.

Few people know what is going on there. In Eastern Burma, more than 3,500 villages have been destroyed in the past 15 years and hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities continue to be used as slave labor.  Women and children are raped, men are tortured and executed. Right now there are more than 100,000 people hiding in the jungle, without food, proper shelter, or medicine.

There are remarkable people there who try to help and save lives without much support from the outside world. If they had more support, they could save more lives. I would like my book to inform but also to move people and governments to take action for human rights in Burma.

How many ethnic groups are there in Burma and why are they being persecuted?

There are eight major ethnic groups together with more than 130 ethnic minorities in Burma. Ethnic people have been living under constant attack by the ruling Burmese regimes for decades. There is a humanitarian crisis in Burma and systematic human right violations—including forced labor, rape, torture, extra-judicial killings, forced relocations, extortion, land confiscation and denial of aid—are widespread. The level of poverty and disease is as high as in the worst conflict zones in Africa, but without much attention from the international community.

The United Nations has accused the dictatorship in Burma of breaking the Geneva Conventions by deliberately targeting civilians. But there hasn’t been a UN investigation into these crimes. The U.S. government should support a UN commission of inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the dictatorship in Burma.

My dream for Burma is that everyone can live in peace, security and freedom regardless of ethnicity, race, religion and gender, and that everyone is treated equally.

In March, you visited the Thai-Burma border. Can you describe what is it like and tell me about the people you met?

I went to Papun in Karen State and met with people who were hiding in the jungle after having survived a mortar bomb attack by the Burmese army. The people cannot return to their land because the Burmese army is shooting people on sight. The army destroyed their houses, food, and crops.

I met a child soldier who had defected from the Burmese army. He was ordered to attack civilians and destroy their villages. He could end up in prison for forty years for deserting. And I will never forget a young woman I met who was five months pregnant and forced to carry heavy loads by the dictatorship’s troops. She was gang-raped, like many other women who are subjected to rape as a weapon of war by the regime.

How did you become a voice for freedom in the struggle for human rights in Burma?

The dictatorship holds on to power by denying education to its people, especially ethnic minorities like me. I grew up in Karen state and was forced to flee my homeland when the Burmese army attacked my village. While in a refugee camp, I received a scholarship from the Open Society Institute and a few other organizations to pursue higher education. Many other young people from Burma have no access to education.

In 2005, I started working with Burma Campaign UK to promote human rights, democracy, and development in Burma. I met twice with former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown as well as with the leader of the Conservative Party and now Prime Minister David Cameron, celebrities, and governments across Europe to ask them to take stronger action against the dictatorship.

What was life like in the refugee camp?

It was more like a prison camp. We were not allowed to go out. It wasn’t completely safe and we were completely dependent on aid from NGOs. We got basic food, education, and medical supplies. People in the camp live with hope that the situation in Burma will get better so that they can return home. As a young person there, I really didn’t know what lay ahead.

Do you know if people inside Burma are reading your book? What is their response?

People in Burma know about my book through the Burmese exiled media, which broadcasts the information all over the country. It could be dangerous for people to physically have my book inside. The dictatorship won’t allow such a political book that tells the truth about what’s going on in Burma.

People can read my book freely if they are in areas controlled by ethnic groups.  Many have sent encouraging messages and said the book gave them hope as well as information about advocacy activities.

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