Storyteller for Human Rights

By Shelton, Anna | The Progressive, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Storyteller for Human Rights


Shelton, Anna, The Progressive


Rangoon, Burma

For eleven years, villagers in Burma braved malaria and military persecution to tell their stories to Ka Hsaw Wa. The man they met secretly in the jungle is an ethnic Karen native who was collecting narratives of forced labor and assault from thousands of victims of the notorious Burmese military regime, the State Peace and Development Council (formerly called the SLORC).

When he was eighteen years old, Ka Hsaw Wa was tortured by SLORC officers. He watched a close friend die as the two fled Rangoon in the wake of student protests in 1988. He found mutilated bodies on the side of the road and heard many mothers describe the deaths of their children. Because of these experiences, Ka Hsaw Wa began to memorize the narratives people told him--those who were mourning loved ones and abandoning the smoking remains of their homes. He recorded important details in the margins of his Burmese-English dictionary.

In 1995, Ka Hsaw Wa and two lawyers founded EarthRights International, a nonprofit organization that focuses on protecting human rights and the environment. Ka Hsaw Wa's interviews have contributed to the organization's Burma Project, which records the actions of the military regime.

As part of the project, Ka Hsaw Wa began doing more interviews in the thin southern strip of Burma where a natural gas pipeline was being constructed, funded in part by the U.S. petroleum company Unocal. The villagers he met described massive relocation, forced labor, and beatings by the military. They said the soldiers who attacked them and forced them to work were associated with the pipeline project. EarthRights International used the testimony in a class action suit filed in 1996 with the Center for Constitutional Rights against Unocal. The suit is still in its early stages.

Barry Lane, a spokesman for Unocal, denies that the company was involved in human rights abuses.

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