The following was written by SFL Campus Coordinator Sarah Harvard.
Over the holidays, I spent about two weeks in Myanmar. To some, Myanmar is infamously known as the fascist Disneyland of the world – a place where a sparkling 76 carat diamond can sit atop the glowing golden Shwedagon Pagoda while the ruling military junta shoots Buddhist monks and protesters. The country is in midst of two conflicts that the media never seems to think are newsworthy: a civil war and a genocide against the Rohingya minority. Although military leader Thein Sein has made some small, lenient changes (recently pardoning political prisoners and allowing open-entry for American tourists) oppression is omnipresent in this majestic country. While there, I decided to look into how education can be a foundation for a successful democratic transition, and it was through my special interactions, connections and experiences in this beautiful country that I realized the U.S. has a lot to learn from Myanmar.
Let me share with you something that has been sitting in my heart, mind, and soul:
In a country where consequences are presumably very grim for having foreigners visit universities, I was fortunate enough to do something unheard of in the history of Myanmar – I visited a university intending to meet with Burmese student activists.
We rushed through the hallways and tried our best to remain unnoticed, and were fortunate enough that no guards or university personnel were in the hallways to stop us. When I walked into the meeting room, I was dumbfounded. There were nearly 300 people in the room, an attendance that is bigger than some major pro-liberty conferences in America.
I have often complained about the apathy among college students and Americans. But here was this massive group of students who meet every single week to hold discussions, forums, and activism events despite facing prison, beatings, and all sort of atrocities that their government will commit to hold them down.
And they continue to rise and stand back up.
When they asked my thoughts on the U.S. funding of the Afghan Mujhadeen forces in the 1980s and the government overreach through the recent NSA scandal, I could see their eyes grow wide and glow, as they tried to take as much insight as possible. These students were hungry for liberty and knowledge.
While I was in Myanmar, I met with two students who stood out: a boy and a girl – both eighteen years old. The boy was a political prisoner for six months and had walked 800 miles in Myanmar for the promotion of peace. The girl was a human fireball – she’s not afraid to publicly speak out against General Thein Sein – and already has a documentary made about her incredible leadership in the student movement for liberty in Myanmar. She has already been dubbed as the future opposition leader of Myanmar at just eighteen years old.
I asked the ambitious girl if she ever felt scared that she might end up in prison. She looked right at me, eyes stared cold, and she said:
“I don’t care if I go to prison. If I do, it won’t stop me or the efforts for freedom that my generation has been working towards. But Sarah, you’re lucky to be in the United States. We look to America, and people like you, as the symbol of freedom in this world.”
That hit me hard.
She’s right. America is seen as a symbol of freedom by other countries. And we have our cases of injustice and an abusive government. However, we owe it to ourselves and to humanity to continue to strive against all odds for a more free country. We must not let their perceptions of our country be cheapened nor should we allow minor obstacles of apathy and pessimism get in the way of our goal of a truly free society.
Let this be our light. In the United States, we have the opportunity to debate and discuss with other students and professors. Myanmar does not. In the United States, we have the opportunity to sharpen critical thinking skills. Myanmar does not. In the United States, we have the opportunity to have our academic freedoms protected. Myanmar does not. Despite all the limited resources and oppressions in their everyday life, the people of Myanmar are still energized and motivated to always strive for a better, free society.
Liberty isn’t for ourselves nor is it limited to our campuses. This is something to keep in mind. Liberty is for every single human being on this planet – regardless of nationality, race, gender, orientation, and etc. We must think big, but also practical. Our efforts will never be just enough, and we always need to push far beyond what we can even imagine. We must not let apathy or negativity rule over our efforts and passion for a free society.
Every major advancement in our country’s history had leaders who lead towards the promised land, the gleaming light – and won – against all odds of apathy, threat, violence, and etc. Their efforts, their winning battles has opened the door for us to continue to pursue more liberty in ways that were a lot easier for us than it for them. We just have to walk in with our heads up high and our hearts intact with our minds.
It’s time for our generation to wake up. We must stray away from our differences and personal relationships, and unite based on values of human dignity and liberty. We must not settle with what seems better, but rather strive for the best option for a freer society. We must make “anti-government sentiments” as “pro-individual freedom sentiments”, and make our message positive rather than pessimistic. We must make our society realize that libertarianism is not a radical philosophy, but rather a moderate and necessary idea. A truly free society is not just a city upon a hill, but rather a flowing stream revitalizing the American dream to an American reality.