'Jungle girl' gives voice to oppressed
Zoya Phan is the face of the Karen people
Peter Goodspeed, National Post
Published: Thursday, October 29, 2009
Zoya Phan may be destined to become as famous as Burma's detained opposition
leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
The tiny, soft-spoken refugee is rapidly becoming the best known spokeswoman
for the Karen people, Burma's second-largest ethnic group.
The author of a best-selling autobiography, Little Daughter, she has been a
guest speaker at British political conventions and is a regular panelist on
news shows, where she calls for international pressure to topple a military
dictatorship that has ruled Burma since 1962.
Journalists and book reviewers describe Ms. Phan, 28, as "an
icon of a suffering land" and "the voice of an enslaved nation."
This week she is touring Canada as the guest of Montrealbased Rights &
Like Ms. Suu Kyi, the daughter of Burmese independence hero Aung San, Ms.
Phan is the daughter of freedom fighters. Her father, Padoh Mahn Sha Lah
Phan, was secretary general of the Karen National Union, before he was
assassinated last year at his home in a refugee camp inside Thailand.
"He was my hero, my leader," she says.
"He was humble, a man of principle, committed to human rights and democracy.
He was killed because they feared him and what he stood for."
Her mother, a gentle woman who constantly "adopted" needy children, was a
former guerrilla who told her children she once killed and skinned a python
to feed her platoon.
For most of her childhood Ms. Phan lived an idyllic life in bamboo huts by
the banks of the Moei River.
"I was a jungle girl," she says.
Life was simple but harsh. The closest medical clinic was kilometres away
and she foraged for food in the forest with her brothers and sister to
supplement a diet of rice and fish paste.
But danger lurked in the shadows.
In her book Ms. Phan describes the day she discovered the bloated corpse of
a slave labourer floating in the river. A Karen tribesman, forced to act as
a porter for the Burmese Army, had been beaten till his back was shredded
and thrown into the water.
When she was 14, the war that had raged between the Burmese Army and Karen
nationalist guerrillas since 1947 finally caught up to her. Soldiers
attacked her village, torched its houses and destroyed crops.
She ran for her life as mortar shells crashed nearby, then spent two years
hiding in the jungle with thousands of other displaced people.
Ultimately, they ended up in a refugee camp inside Thailand.
"The camps are like prisons," she says. The Karen are not allowed to leave,
to work or to farm. There is little education and food is rationed.
Ms. Phan won a scholarship from a foreign aid agency and went to university
in Bangkok and later to the University of East Anglia in Britain.
"I am very lucky," she says. "Many of my friends in Burma and in
neighbouring countries have had to work as prostitutes in the sex
After her mother died, and she and her father escaped two separate
assassination attempts, she fled to Britain, where she claimed political
"It was a big shock," she says. "A girl from the jungle stepped into the big
city. It was a cultural shock, a language problem, a technology shock. I
didn't even know how to use a kettle."
The change had benefits. Ms Phan learned more about Burma.
"Under the military dictatorship the practice was to divide and rule," she
says. "The state owns and operates all the news media, and the people of
Burma know very little of what is going on in their own country."
"It sounds strange, but I knew almost nothing about Aung San Suu Kyi," she
says. "I had heard about her and seen her picture but I didn't know who she
Now, Ms Suu Kyi is her hero. "She's a role model not just for women, but for
the people of Burma," she says. "The strongest army in southeast Asia is
afraid of her because she represents freedom; freedom of fear; freedom from
ethnic cleansing; freedom from rape as a weapon of war ..."
While attending a Free Burma demonstration outside the
Burmese embassy three years ago in London, Ms. Phan, dressed in traditional
Karen costume, was plucked from the audience to give a speech.
Her eloquence endeared her to the news media and she became an overnight
She met Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, and addressed the British
Conservative party's annual conference in 2006 and 2007.
In the absence of Ms. Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for 14 years,
she has become the voice of Burma's opposition movement.
But she says, "I just see myself as a refugee and I just want to go home. I
want to see peace in my homeland."
Read more: http://www.nationalpost.com/story.html?id=2156728#ixzz0WG0LezKV
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