International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Burma
Aung San Suu Kyi Into a Cambodian Classroom
Raising awareness of the plight of Aung
San Suu Kyi among students through music in rural Cambodia leaves
a song in their heart.
At 10:00am in early October 2008, with the dark clouds menacingly appearing
low and threatening to deliver a deluge of rain, I asked my
class of nine students, "What would you like to know about
One student raised her hand and said in a quiet, high-pitched voice,
"Teacher, who is your hero? Please tell us."
The nine students
who only a week earlier initially approached me for voluntarily
tutorials, had put me on the spot. Students have an incredible
ability to show how simple it is to be caught off-guard in the art of
conversation. However, I was glad that somebody had taken the initiative
to spontaneously ask such a question because it provided me with an
opportunity to learn how far their knowledge of the world extended and
what issues they cared about.
In a split second, I asked myself what response would provide the best
example; an iconic figure idolized across the western world, a regular
citizen in a western country who is not famous but one I can more readily
identify with, or a Cambodian identity my students would know, which
would show respect for my host nation and its people.
Without so much as opening my mouth, I simply pointed to a printed
image on my t-shirt and played the waiting game,
hoping that one student would identify the world's most famous political
prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Burma's opposition political
party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).
Working as a volunteer provides me with greater flexibility of material
choice and lesson creation. Later in the class, I would introduce
U2's tribute, Walk On, and highlight to the class how music can
be an effective method of raising one's social conscience.
In Cambodian villages, open conversations regarding political and social
matters are rare amongst adults, let alone in the classroom, so
my lesson plan contained a great risk of failing. However, I had
observed a small number of high school students not only being able
to identify Aung San Suu Kyi, but also cite why she is famous and
that she is currently under house arrest.
As my finger remained fixated on the image, one student declared
excitedly, "David, I know that lady," while pointing to my
"Who is she?" I asked.
"She is Aung San Suu....", and although unable to pronounce
Kyi, I had already accepted her answer as correct.
I continued by saying, "Where have you seen her face?"
"We study her for English class. I show you."
The student opened up her exercise book and pulled out a photocopied
article from an unidentified English language newspaper. It
quoted a spokeswoman claiming to represent a women's association
aligned with the Burmese military junta. The headline read, "Deport
Aung San Suu Kyi to UK."
The student's ability to identify such a public person impressed
me. Individuals with college level education from western
countries have been unable to demonstrate a similar knowledge. Several
months earlier while travelling through Laos, a backpacker from
California proclaiming to have a degree in International Affairs
majoring in Asian Studies asked me if Aung San Suu Kyi was a Chinese
is little wonder that the Burmese military junta defiantly
flout calls to release Aung San Suu Kyi unconditionally
if members of the informed international community cannot identify
political figures constantly in the global spotlight. Yet even
regional leaders have commented publicly on the need to keep Aung
San Suu Kyi out of the limelight. In 2008, then Prime
Minister of Thailand Samak Sundaravej accused the West of using
Aung San Suu Kyi's imprisonment as a tool to isolate Burma
and suggested they focus more on bilateral trade.
With the increasing
number of companies willing to invest in Burma, more companies are willing
to turn a blind to human rights for increased access to natural resources
such as gas.The class listened and re-listened to Walk On throughout
the week. I also played the song on guitar and provided vocals to demonstrate
the difficulty for native English speakers in getting the rhythm and
voice pitch correct. Together, we also worked through some of the
lyrical metaphors. The song became so popular, everybody in the class
formed groups of three and developed a roster to share the disc
outside of school time.
Upon my return to Tropang Sdok in January 2009, two students proudly
told me how they practised the tune two hours per day for an entire
month. Then suddenly they burst into song in unison, shyly
singing the first verse before apologizing. "We promise when
you come back, we will know it all," they assured me before excusing
themselves and making their way home for lunch.
I could only stand back and express my admiration as these softly
spoken teenagers broke free from the mould of being reclusive teenage
students and embraced a daunting task with much enthusiasm.
In a country where students will soon be learning about the horrific
crimes of the Khmer Rouge as part of their general education in history
class, these students may one day become versed in another part
of Southeast Asian affairs by encouraging others to speak out on behalf
of a woman who openly calls for the rights of oppressed citizens in
Burma to be respected and practised.
One day, there will be a growing movement in Cambodia on behalf of a
brave woman who provides hope and the singing bird in an open cage
will then finally fly for freedom.
© David Calleja March 2009
David is a regular contributor to HackWriters and Foreign Policy
Journal. His works have also been included in SOHAM (Society of
Harmony and Magnanimity), Travelmag, Things Asian, Mekong Net and Tales
of Asia. View his submissions by visiting the homepages,
Also, see his video A Garbage Diet, about life for residents in the
compounds of Stung Meanchey Municipal Waste Dump in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
If you have already viewed the film, please pass this link onto
colleagues or anybody else that you know who may be interested.
Loi Tailang Tigers
For the hundreds of orphans at Loi Tailang Internally Displaced
Persons (IDP) camp in Shan State, Burma, football is the fantasy escape
from the memories of conflict
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