Five Burmese activists were honored with a democracy award at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, in a ceremony marred by the absence of one of their number —Min Ko Naing, Burma’s most famous democracy crusader after Aung San Suu Kyi.
He stayed behind in a show of solidarity with other activists who were not granted international passports by President Thein Sein’s government in time to make it to the award.
The National Endowment for Democracy, a U.S. government-funded nonprofit group, gave its 2012 Democracy Award to the five activists in recognition of their “unwavering dedication to the cause of freedom and their steadfast service to the people of Burma.”
In a ceremony attended by Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, ethnic minority politician Hkun Htoo Oo, actor-turned-humanitarian Kyaw Thu, refugee doctor Cynthia Maung, and U.S. Campaign for Burma co-founder Aung Din accepted their awards at the ceremony.
But former political prisoner Min Ko Naing, who had been scheduled to collect the award along with them, was not at the event.
The 88 Generation Students Group activist canceled his trip last week, electing instead to stay behind because the Burmese government had not granted passports to 19 out of 20 members of the group who applied. The government only approved their applications on the eve of the award ceremony, too late for them to attend the event.
“I could not accept this honor while my fellow colleagues were denied [permission to travel],” the activist said in a video message played at the ceremony.
Min Ko Naing, who until January had spent the past 20 years behind bars for his role leading 1988 pro-democracy protests against the former military junta, said the trip for the award would have been his first overseas.
“It will be remembered as the first trip abroad I did not make,” he said in the video message.
He said he hoped his staying behind would serve as a reminder for the remaining reforms needed in Burma.
“It is up to us … to make the reform process real for all the people in Burma,” said Min Ko Naing.
In place of his trip to the U.S., Min Ko Naing went on a tour of northern Burma’s conflict-ridden Kachin state, one of the border regions where the government has yet to negotiate a peace agreement with ethnic rebel groups.
Aung Din, who was granted the award in recognition of his campaigning for political change in Burma in the U.S. and for his role in 1988 protests, took the occasion to highlight ongoing ethnic conflict in the country.
“While we are celebrating here, there are 100,000 refugees in Kachin state fleeing conflict,” he said. “In Rakhine state, 70,000 refugees from Buddhist and Muslim communities have lost their homes … as well as their hopes and future,” Aung Din said before accepting the award.
Cynthia Maung, who founded the Mae Sot clinic that serves ethnic Karen refugees in Thailand near the border with eastern Burma, said that despite recent reforms, the ongoing violence in Burma’s border areas, particularly violence against women, “creates mistrust at the grassroots level.”
Hkun Htun Oo, chairman of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, also spoke of concern for the country’s ethnic nationalities.
He said he was honored to accept the award “on behalf of [Burma’s] ethnic nationalities who have been fighting a long time for democracy, equality, self-determination, and a genuine federal union.”
Aung San Suu Kyi
Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was also at the ceremony to receive the 2000 Democracy Award she and her opposition National League for Democracy party had been given years ago while she was still under house arrest under the country’s military regime.
She paid tribute to the five activists, saying it was “great comfort” to know that there were many men and women in her country like them working for a better future for Burma.
“To be honored is great, but to honor others is even greater,” she said.
“It is because of people like these that we can be confident our future will be happy.”
She said that Burma has come a long way thanks to the work of activists, but that the country still has more to learn about cooperation to make its transition to democracy a reality.
“What has happened in the past has taught us that if we want to succeed, we have to work together.”
Reported by Rachel Vandenbrink.