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glefor strug The freedom; Nobel Peace Prize winnerAung San Suu Kyi, who is making her first visit to the UK for 24 a years this week, inspired when she fought to generation oppressed free the politically- people of Burma. Here chief DAN WARBURTON reporter hears how small gestures from across the globe are helping to free a nation.

SURROUNDED by filth and wading through rubbish, a pristinely dressed Burmese refugee clinically delves into mounds of plastic.

As he unsettles a discarded bottle in the hope of finding valuable recyclable materials, a blizzard of flies swarms from the ground and into his face.

Hope is a scant emotion for thousands of these "displaced" families and orphans living on Thailand's border after being driven from their homes in Burma's Karen state.

Their makeshift shacks are built on mounds of rubbish as they try to avoid eviction by earning the equivalent of pounds 30 a month for selling plastic bags. "How hard must life have been in Burma for people to leave and choose to live on a rubbish tip?" asks Sunderland grandfather Peter Mulligan, a 54-year-old activist who has made three trips to the eastern border of Burma to help those affected by the country's appalling human rights record.

"I saw these families who were living on this rubbish tip infested by flies. I couldn't really estimate the area of the tip, it wasn't sprawling onto the horizon, yet there were about 100 families eking out an existence.

"These people were living with incredible dignity, their clothes were clean and they live just like you and I. But their positions are quite precarious because many of them are illegal immigrants and the Thai authorities sometimes move in to expel them. It's a nightmare.

"But it's safer and healthier to live on a rubbish tip in Thailand than in the Karen state which could be attacked."

Peter is one of an army of activists who have campaigned to highlight the plight of the Burmese people. His efforts area sign of how a distant struggle has sparked international sympathy. In 2007, he made his first trip to Mae Sot, in western Thailand, where he met those affected by atrocities committed across the nearby border in Burma. Since then he has returned twice and passionately inspires his students at Sunderland College to learn about the country. But it isn't his visits 5,000 miles away that are helping to highlight the difficulties facing those in Burma. In 2007 he rallied his students to build a 1,100-brick wall at the Hylton Campus: one brick for each Burmese prisoner of conscience. And he later constructed a 'Burma Path' made up of 2,155 bricks, each representing a prisoner of conscience held in a Burmese jail. In the middle was a different coloured brick which represented the political leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is currently visiting Britain. "I saw some children who had been brought by their parents over the border from the Karen state and they left them in a school as if they were to be picked up later," recalled Peter, "but they never returned to pick them up.

They left them not because of neglect, but as a gesture of incredible love. "They knew their children would be safer. They knew their children wouldn't have to see their parents killed or raped. They knew they wouldn't be attacked by soldiers. "In the school, they knew that their children would have an education and medical provisions, and that's an incredible decision to make. It's these things that make it important for us to highlight the problems over there." The plight of the Burmese is embodied in the selfless actions of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy who spent 15 years under house arrest. When her struggle hit the headlines it inspired a generation. In 1999, James Mawdsley from Brancepeth, County Durham, was sentenced to 17 years in a Burmese jail, thrown into solitary confinement, beaten and had his food contaminated after being caught handing out pro-democracy leaflets. The activist, then aged 33, was released after 415 days, but Continued to protest against the regime in charge of the south east Asian country. Mr Mulligan describes the actions of Mr Mawdsley, now living in Germany and training to become a priest, as "remarkable" but said there are unsung heroes on our own doorstep who deserve praise. "James is an incredible man," recalls Mr Mulligan. "He was described as a champion of human rights, but his main concern was for democracy. "He became so embroiled in the struggle for justice he was locked up. He's got incredible fortitude and strength.

His first words when he was released were that he was fit and well and full of beans. But you don't have to be a high-profile figure and do huge gestures. I did a piece in the paper and one woman read the story. "From then on, for several years, she's been sending cheques each year. Whenever it's her birthday or Christmas, she gets her family to write cheques for Burma Link UK, a tiny charity. It's people like that who are the unsung heroes, donating from what they have got. "You've got high-profile people, but you've got these body of people who are handing over cheques. Everything starts from somewhere. The Fair Trade movement began with old ladies selling ginger biscuits at the back of a church hall. "People would come up to them and they would patiently explain what Fair Trade was. Now it's massive, the whole thing is viral. It's small actions that add up to make big changes." Earlier this year, a trade union delegation visited south east Asia with North East representatives from the University and College Union, Unison, teaching union NASUWT and the Fire Brigades Union. Mick Bowman, an international officer with Unison's Northumberland County Branch, said: "We've got a long history of solidarity with Burmese trade unions. "The unions are one of the main bodies who have been fighting for democracy and justice for decades. We felt an obligation to support the unions in their struggle. "Earlier this year, 10 of us accepted an invitation to visit the country. For years, trade unions have been affected by the events in Burma and they were labelled terrorists and terrorist organisations. "Those who engaged in trade union activity were liable to torture or execution.

Being in that country was an amazing and fantastic experience. When we were there we met with the trade union group, the Federation of Trade Union Kawthalei which is for the Karen people. "The people in the group were at great risk of personal sacrifice for giving their lives to the trade union struggle. Some had been subjected to terrible atrocities." Among them was Paw Gay, a woman from the Karen state who was forcibly removed from her family. For 20 years, she lived among 400,000 displaced Burmese people in the eastern regions and saw members of her family slaughtered during fierce battles.tually, she fled to Thailand where she lived in a refugee camp before devoting her life to being a paramedic with the Medical Backpackers. The organisation "smuggles" medical supplies across the border to help those exiled from their homes. Mr Bowman said: "She's an inspirational woman and a powerful character, but her story is not atypical in that there are others who have been subjected to violence and forced to relocate. "It's important that people involve themselves in Burma at this time when it's in a period of change. For that process to continue it's vital that the trade unions play an important role because they have got links with the workers. "They were at the forefront of the human rights movement and providing welfare services." SYMBOL OF PEACEFUL PROTEST FREEDOM fighter Aung San Suu Kyi has become an international symbol of peaceful resistance in the face of oppression.

The 66-year-old spent most of the last two decades in some form of detention because of her efforts to bring democracy to military-ruled Burma. In 1991, a year after her National League for Democracy (NLD) won an overwhelming victory in an election the junta later nullified, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The committee chairman, Francis Sejested, called her "an outstanding example of the power of the powerle ss". Ms Suu Kyi is the daughter of the country's independence hero, General Aung San, who was assassinated during the transition period in July 1947, just six months before independence, when Ms Suu Kyi was only two. In 1960 she went to India with her mother Daw Khin Kyi, who had been appointed Burma's ambassador to Delhi. Four years later she went to Oxford University in the UK, where she studied philosophy, politics and economics. There she met her future husband, academic Michael Aris. She was sidelined for Burma's first elections in two decades on November 7, 2010, but released from house arrest six days later. As the new government embarked on a process of reform, Ms Suu Kyi and her party rejoined the political process. In April this year she stood for parliament in a by-election, arguing it was what her supporters wanted even if the country's reforms were "not irreversible". She and her fellow NLD candidates won a landslide victory and weeks later the former political prisoner was sworn into parliament, a move unimaginable before the 2010 polls.

CAPTION(S):

HONOURED Aung San Suu Kyi receives Amnesty International's Ambassador of Conscience Award from its secretary general Salil Shetty as U2 singer Bono applauds in Dublin on Monday WELCOME Campaigners from the North East with their hosts at the Federation of Trade Union Kawthalei building in Mae Sot, Thailand AWARENESS The Burma Wall at City of Sunderland College has a brick for each Burmese prisoner of conscience LINKS One of the North East activists in Burma with a group of local youngsters wearing Middlesbrough FC shirts
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:9THAI
Date:Jun 20, 2012
Words:1600
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