He might be just one person, but Saw Albert is determined to help his people overcome years of gross human rights abuses. Shirley Godlewski spoke to the ACU graduate about his journey from the jungles of Burma to the UN Security Council.
Saw Albert was born in rural eastern Burma, isolated from the rest of the world by its ruling military junta and appalling human rights record.
“My village, my family and I, we often found ourselves caught in the middle of fighting, which would force us to flee into the jungle for weeks at a time,” he said. “As a young boy I wanted to become a local businessman to improve my family’s situation. As I grew up however, I realised that poverty was not my family’s to suffer alone.
“I knew that I was only one person, but I believed that I could be useful in some way. Like other refugees, I had a thirst for further study.”
Albert fled to the Thai-Burma border, where some 160,000 Burmese refugees live in nine closed refugee camps, with little education opportunities and no right to employment.
Recognising the limit of camp-based education – which is provided by UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Non-Government Organisations (NGOs), but not recognised outside the camps – Albert applied for a Diploma of Business through ACU’s Refugee Program on the Thai-Burma Border. Graduating in 2006, he went on to complete a Certificate in Theology in 2008.
Fighting for the cause
In April 2007 Albert began working with the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), a grassroots human rights organisation which has been operating in eastern Burma for 20 years.
The group works directly with rural villagers suffering abuses such as forced labour, looting, destruction of livelihood and homes, attacks on schools and clinics, forced relocation, and torture – most of which are committed by soldiers and officials from Burma's ruling military junta.
They train local people to document villagers' stories and gather evidence of human rights abuses, and then disseminate the information worldwide.
After two years as a translator, Albert was promoted to Field Manager, and a year later became Field Director.
“As KHRG operates in a collective decision making process, I am able to share my experience, understanding, and opinions which I had learned in practice, in school and from the ACU program,” he said.
“I can always hear their pain. I can always hear the murmurs of their poverty and brutal experiences, their struggles, which I can never turn away from. Their suffering always encourages me, and reminds me, that I should do something to improve the situation.”
Addressing the UN Security Council
In July 2012 KHRG was invited to address the UN Security Council in New York City and present a statement on the issue of child soldiers.
Speaking on behalf of KHRG, Albert stressed the need for a responsive and accessible accountability plan for violations against children in armed conflict, which also prioritises local perspectives and addresses the existing lack of punishment for offenders.
Not only was the trip to the US a first for Albert, along with experiencing hotels, flights and taxis, it was also the first time he had entered another country legally.
“There was no one in the meeting who spoke my language or had the same appearance as me. I felt very nervous, but also very proud that I had the opportunity to relate my peoples’ suffering.”
Hope for the future
Albert said he can slowly see changes taking place in the Burma, but much more needs to be done to ensure lasting peace.
“After the 2012 preliminary ceasefire between the Karen National Union and Burma’s Government, we have noted that attacks on villages, schools and clinics have stopped, but other human rights violations are ongoing,” he said. “There are lots of children in rural Burma who need support now, and there is no specific program that has started rehabilitation for the them.
“Small support and self reliance programs are not sufficient to cure the suffering that they have endured since birth. I’m starting to see a fostering of accountability for children rights, and I hope this move continues and lasts a long time.”
ACU Refugee Program on the Thai-Burma Border
ACU, through its Faculty of Arts and Sciences, has been offering tertiary education to Burmese refugees since 2004. The University has established a study centre on the Thai-Burma border, complete with computers, internet access, accommodation and food for camp-based refugees.
Students complete a Diploma in Liberal Studies, which is recognised globally. Many have gone on to work for NGOs, or have obtained scholarships to study in universities around the world.
For more information about the program visit www.acu.edu.au/thai-burma.
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