(Webster Groves, MO, April 13, 2011) In the spring 2010 semester, Emily Anderson, a junior international human rights major, studied abroad in Thailand. While at the Webster Thailand campus, she met Rico, a Burmese student whose last name is not revealed for safety purposes. They fell in love with each other, she said.
Now back in St. Louis, Anderson said she has a mission to raise awareness of the struggles in Rico’s homeland.
“I definitely want to see him one day and all the guys we met from Burma,” said Anderson, who on April 7 led a march on the Webster University St. Louis campus in solidarity with Burma.
The Southeast Asian country is officially known as the Republic Union of Myanmar, the name used by the military regime that has been in power since a coup in 1962.
More than 50 faculty and students attended the event. Some students, like Anderson, had a deep connection with the Burmese people.
“I got this email from him (Rico) earlier this year saying he was going to have to serve in the army,” said Anderson, treasurer of Amnesty International’s Webster chapter, which sponsored the event. “Having to imagine Rico and the other students I met holding guns — I couldn’t imagine it. I knew I had to do something.”
Anderson refers to a law, which Burmese officials enacted earlier this year, forcing men and women into the armed forces, with prison sentences of up to five years for draft dodgers. Anderson said this was one of the many examples of the strict military dictatorship that has ruled the country for decades.
“We are trying to show our solidarity for them, trying to show them that the rest of the world knows what’s going on, that we care about people fighting for their rights,” said Paul Moriarty, faculty adviser for Amnesty International and adjunct professor of philosophy and international human rights.
Moriarty said many students like Anderson traveled to Thailand and interacted with Burmese students and heard of their struggles. He said all students should become aware of the political situation in Burma, especially since the Webster Thailand campus is located so close to it.
“Webster thinks of itself as a global university,” Moriarty said. “We’ve got campuses all around the world and we don’t want to think of ourselves just as a small school in St. Louis, isolated from the rest of the world. We are connected to the rest of the world.”
The Webster Thailand campus sits approximately 80 miles from the Burmese border. The Migrant Assistance Programme, a Thai non-governmental organization (NGO), estimates that 1.5 to 2 million Burmese live in Thailand.
Ratish Thakur, rector of the Webster Thailand campus, spoke of the Burmese relationship with the Thai campus. Thakur said the university tries to recruit some students from Burma, but there are only few that attend the campus.
“Webster University Thailand recruits students from Myanmar (Burma),” Thakur said. “We have had and continue to get some great students from there. We do not have any relationships with the government.”
Thakur said ever since the 2007 protests, Thai media coverage of the Burmese issue has decreased. He also said he has not witnessed students on his campus try to raise awareness of the issue.
“I think the number of students is too small for them to be able to do much,” Thakur said.
In St. Louis, however, Moriarty said the students are trying to make their voices heard.
“University students have been voices for social justice for a long time,” Moriarty said. “We can’t have a human rights major and tell students not to care about what is happening in Burma.”
Hanna Fisher-Forman, junior international human rights major, also attended the march. Fisher-Forman had contact with Burmese students during her stay in Thailand. She said the exchange shocked her, and she wanted to raise awareness for them once in St. Louis.
“Hearing their stories and seeing them come back from spring break saying, ‘Yeah a bomb went off by my house,’ really made me start thinking on what their life was like in an oppressive government,” Fisher-Forman said.
Kris Parsons, a junior international rights major, made a visa run to Burma during her stay in the Webster Thailand campus. Foreigners living in Thailand must make a visa run, which means leaving the country for at least a day in order to get a new visa from the Thai government.
Parsons went to visit the parents of one of her Burmese friends, who lived in the town of Tachileik. Parsons visited the hospital where her friend’s parents worked as doctors. She said the visit opened her eyes to what is happening in the region.
Parsons said it is a duty for students to realize what happens there can affect everyone in the world.
“In our completely interconnected world, things that happen in Burma affect us,” Parsons said. “They affect our Thailand campus. A lot of people in Thailand are Burmese and they are our friends.”
Anderson said she hopes the message gets across to Burma to give courage to the people who are fighting the regime. She said she hopes one day she can go to visit Rico again and use her degree at Webster to help people in a land that is not hers, even if it’s from far away.
“Being an international human rights major I feel that what I’m learning can really help people and change the world for the better,” Anderson said. “The world needs a little fixing. I want to feel life hasn’t been wasted.”
Moriarty said Amnesty International will continue to raise awareness and show support toward any country that is struggling to obtain freedom and democracy. He said it may take time, but he is optimistic.
“As democracy and free speech spread around the world, the dictators are in trouble and I don’t think they can last forever,” Moriarty said.