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Fighting for a Spot on the List of Causes

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U Kyaw Win is a small man only by the physical standards of his exile home, the United States.

He is sitting behind a desk strewn with books and papers in a tiny office cubicle at Orange Coast College. Here he counsels students about what to do with their lives, about how to make choices that they will not regret.

Sticking out from his shirt pocket is dark green plastic: His savings passbook from the bank. U Kyaw Win keeps this book with him nearly at all times, to let him know where he stands, to gauge just how much more he can give to the cause.

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He thumbs through it, page after worn page, on my account.

“I have $6.58,” he says. “That’s how much I have. I live from month to month. Luckily, my wife and I have jobs. If we have an emergency, we have to borrow from our friends.”

Emergency, however, consumes U Kyaw Win’s life. He is Burmese. The emergency in his country has by now evolved into a dull groan of constant pain, decades old, with new twists and new horrors. Since 1989, Burma even has a new name, Myanmar, courtesy of the latest cast of military thugs who have taken control.

U Kyaw Win can hardly stand to pronounce the name.

“It’s grammatically incorrect,” he says. “That’s how stupid these fellows are. In Burmese, Myanmar is an adjective!”

Yet most of the world’s people do not hear the cries of the Burmese. The Southeast Asian country is virtually closed to the outside. And even if it were not, my guess is that most Americans would be immune to yet another distant tale of humanity run amok.

U Kyaw Win wrote me a letter. It starts: “Could I possibly interest you in doing a piece on the present situation in Burma?”

My short, and obvious, answer was no. I put the letter, with several enclosures, aside. What is this, a joke?

Then later I thought about it again. What would drive this man, with a Ph.D. after his name, to work tirelessly for such an unfashionable cause? Hasn’t he heard of “compassion fatigue”?

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The causes U Kyaw Win must compete with are far too many to name here. Some of them, abroad, are the Kurds, the cyclone victims in Bangladesh, the cholera-stricken in Peru, the Lithuanians--their president was just here--and still, South Africa calls to us too.

At home, of course, are those without shelter, the ill, the poor, the abused and the abusers too. We hear of the cycles--of poverty, of despair--and of this breeding that and of nobody quite figuring out just how to get clear.

They are all, in their way, noble calls to arms. The true champions of such causes, in my view, are close to saints. But most people, myself included, are not in this group.

We have our own problems, prosaic perhaps, but they seem to expand to take up more than enough of our time. We muddle on.

Which U Kyaw Win knows, of course. How could he not? He has been trying to open American eyes to the plight of the Burmese since 1962. They are massacred, tortured, enslaved, starved and killed in civil war; the past three years have been the worst.

U Kyaw Win writes congressmen, senators, the State Department, anybody with an interest, anybody with the time.

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Not many people pay him heed. He says that he was very happy I called.

What U Kyaw Win wants is for America to cut off Myanmar’s military regime, to sever diplomatic ties. He wants U.S. recognition of a now-outlawed provisional government, elected to a majority in parliament last year but never allowed to serve. He wants Americans to stop buying Burmese tea and teak.

He writes and publishes a newsletter, the Burma Bulletin, from his home in Laguna Hills. It is free to the 325 people on his mailing list, and U Kyaw Win pays for all the postage too. Recently, he was appointed Burmese ambassador to the United States by the provisional government, the one that the American government does not deal with in an official way.

That costs him time and money too.

U Kyaw Win and two colleagues are leaving on June 1 for Burmese refugee camps along the northwestern border of Thailand. They will bring medicine and supplies. They will no doubt gather more evidence of violations of the most basic of human rights.

They hope that the world will hear.

Which it may. Amnesty International is publishing human rights accounts. I have a copy of an alarming U.N. report submitted to its Commission on Human Rights.

Articles, mostly in the overseas press, are appearing too. U Kyaw Win, along with two others, are authors of an article on health and human rights in Burma, scheduled for publication in the British medical journal, Lancet, soon.

“I don’t know if Americans want to hear,” U Kyaw Win says. “They don’t know anything about what is going on. That is the tragedy of it. I think Americans do care. They are very generous. It’s the American spirit; it’s a very giving spirit. They are overburdened with all these donations and everything, but they do care. . . .

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“I do get very frustrated,” he says. “I get so angry, that they can do this and get away with it. I have a friend in Irvine, his brother was a pastor (who) was tortured to death. My friend couldn’t do anything. He couldn’t say anything. . . . Most Burmese, they keep quiet. They are scared. . . .

“I have a feeling that someday, others will join the chorus. When I first started this, nobody joined in. Now, some people are. I don’t think I will see democracy and freedom in Burma in my lifetime--I am 57 years old--but if I don’t do this, who will?”

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