Human rights no theorectical matter
Leila Jabbour learns about one student’s determination to improve human rights in Burma.
For Chaw Ei Win Zaw (pictured), there’s nothing theoretical about studying human rights. As a child in Burma she saw her father imprisoned for 13 years without contact with his family – an experience that fuelled her resolution to help political prisoners and their families when she grew up. Now an experienced human rights worker, she is midway through the new Master of Human Rights and Democratisation (Asia Pacific) at the University of Sydney.
“When my father was in jail,” she says, “my mother, brother and I were not allowed to visit him, and my mother struggled to provide basic needs to her two little children. Those periods were a nightmare for my family.”
Chaw Ei’s father is veteran Burmese journalist, writer and freedom fighter Ludu Sein Win. In 1960, aged 20, he started work as an editor with a local newspaper. Seven years later his paper was shut down and he and the other five editors were arrested.
Ludu Sein was sent to notorious Insein Prison and put in solitary confinement for two years. This was followed by three years imprisonment in Great Coco Island, and another stint at Insein Prison before he was released in 1976.
His freedom was short lived. Chaw Ei remembers the day Burma’s military intelligence unit returned to their house.“They asked my father to come with them, as they wanted some information from him.”Ludu Sein’s next period of detainment lasted four years. He was finally released after he suffered a stroke in an Insein cell where he had been kept alone for three years. Though the right side of his body was paralysed, he learned to write with his left hand after his release, and continued to produce articles for many journals and magazines.
Chaw Ei has clearly inherited her father’s indomitable spirit. “Her commitment to justice and human rights is absolute,” says Dr Danielle Celermajer, academic director of the master’s program. “She’s always asking, ‘How do I help? How do I make a difference to my country?’”
Chaw Ei was keenly aware of human rights issues from an early age. “Government spies were everywhere,” she says. “On the campus, in the classrooms, near homes. When I graduated from high school, I was not allowed to enter the university I liked. The government chose for me, and my bachelor’s degree took six years, as the government forced the university to close for over two years.”
Undeterred, she completed her Bachelor of Science in Burma, and later a Bachelor of Science (Honours) in the UK and a Master of Public Policy in Singapore. Keen to develop her skills further (“learning is never-ending,” she says) she enrolled to study the Master of Human Rights and Democratisation at the University of Sydney.
Chaw Ei is exactly the kind of person the program was designed for. Established with funding from the European Union and supported by donations from alumni and friends to the Sydney Development Fund, it was launched by the then Faculty of Arts in July 2010 with an initial enrolment of about 30 students from 13 countries including Australia.
Over two semesters the course teaches practical skills to help people advocate for human rights and democracy, both within local communities and across the region. The first semester involves intensive coursework at Sydney. The second takes place at one of four partner universities – in Indonesia, Nepal, Sri Lanka or Thailand – and comprises further coursework plus a dissertation or internship with a relevant organisation.
Chaw Ei has chosen to spend her second semester as an intern in Thailand, as it will give her a chance to work with refugees at the Thai-Burma border, and facilitate a comparative study between Thailand and Burma on human rights protection.
While benefiting from the University’s research and academic expertise, the students also contribute to the rich learning environment – sharing their own first-hand experiences and perspectives with students from other courses. “Our classes have been transformed by their presence,” says Dr Celermajer.
This ties in with the University’s larger objective: to be an active part of a civil society. Dr Celermajer believes the people of Australia are concerned about regional security in other countries, and this has to take into account issues like whether the people have enough to eat and can live without fear of violence.
For example, the Australian response to events in Burma has been strong, but it’s not necessarily the military threat that most Australians relate to. “It’s more a recognition of what it means in terms of the oppression of the Burmese people, and their ability to live a decent life,” says Dr Celermajer. “If we can teach our students to think strategically, we can have a significant impact on these situations.”
Chaw Ei also believes education is the key. “Burmese people like myself live always in fear,” she says. “They do not even know what their rights are. If we can educate them, if we can build their capacity, they certainly will come out to fight.”
Her own long-term goal is clear. Together with fellow student and human rights advocate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, she wants to build an ‘ami-meritocracy’ system in Burma (a combination of amity and meritocracy) – a nation rich with expertise for economic development, humility to respect the rights of others as human beings, and peace to avoid war and violence.
For more information on the new Master of Human Rights and Democratisation, see sydney.edu.au/arts/human_rights_democratisation