Ko Khun Sai is a 53-year-old Myanmar (Burma) prisoner whose only crime is speaking out for the rights of his fellow men. The medical doctor is guilty of nonviolent expression of his political beliefs and advocacy of human rights — and for that he is paying dearly. Sentenced to seven years in jail and hard labor, he is believed to have been tortured, and has no contact with his family.
Ko Khun Sai is one of an estimated 1,600 prisoners of conscience in Myanmar, and only one of countless others around the world who are tortured, kept in prison or treated inhumanely by their own governments and others in power.
They may not be able to change the world, but a small group of Key Peninsula and Gig Harbor residents are joining in the fight for the freedom of those prisoners, as part of Amnesty International. Ko Khun Sai’s case has been specifically assigned to the local Amnesty chapter, and the group writes letters on his behalf to a variety of officials in Myanmar, the local press, or others who have impact on his condition.
“We can’t change the world, but we can write a letter on someone’s behalf,” said Key Pen’s Lori Brudvik Lindner, one of the core members of the local group, which became active in 1997. “We’re privileged in this country…Those people are only guilty of fighting for their humanity.”
In addition to assigning chapters specific cases, Amnesty International sends action alerts that require letter writing. Sometimes the actions are for specific individuals — like asking for protection of trial witnesses receiving death threats — other times they write for entire groups or specific human rights violations, including things like racial profiling in the United States. Many letters advocate for basic civil liberties that are part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed in 1948 and regarded by Eleanor Roosevelt as one of her greatest accomplishments.
Now and then, the foreign officials send replies back. As the group met at the house of Key Pen resident Neal Vandervoorn at the end of November, they read a reply from the Russian Ministry of Education to a letter expressing concerns for the conditions of Russian orphans and foster children. While a white candle wrapped with symbolic barbed wire burned at the table, the group talked about some of the cases. Even if some of the letters don’t mean much to the recipients, they say, they let the officials know that the world is watching.
In between the replies and the silence, victories take shape. The group recalls a Bulgarian woman who found their chapter online and contacted them regarding her missing husband. They forwarded the information for research to headquarters, to confirm that it was due to his political beliefs — Amnesty doesn’t get involved in incidents of violence. After Amnesty members went into action, the woman wrote back: Her husband was released.
Releases, improvements of prison conditions, commuted sentences — victories come in all forms. Brudvik Lindner says being exposed to someone else’s reality is sometimes hard, but it’s a natural extension of her beliefs and it helps her think globally, outside herself.
“It’s not a helpless mechanism,” she said. “We feel like we’re doing something.”
As long as they keep the candle lit, there is still hope for someone, somewhere, for a better tomorrow.
To learn more
To learn more about the local Amnesty chapter, call Neal Vandervoorn at 857-3655.