This Saturday, I picked a shift up at Jury's. Besides making some extra money, I reconnected with an old acquaintance, Daniel W., who came into the restaurant with his wife and another couple.
Daniel and I met in 1990 when we collaborated on a project for Amnesty International Local Group 570. Our group adopted a "prisoner of conscience--" a person who had been imprisoned for expressing his beliefs.
We took up the case of a young man named Lee Myunjae. He was a young South Korean man who was a political and labor organizer. He was 29 years old-- the exact same age as I was. He was one of many people who were radicalized by the Kwangju massacre. This was a 1980 student-led uprising against the military dictatorship that was then running South Korea.
Daniel and I met with a minister who'd lived in South Korea and had published a book about the political situation in South Korea. We learned about the corrupt chaebols that held economic and political power in South Korea. The chaebols are huge industrial conglomerates that produce brand names you probably know, like Hyundai and Samsung. We learned how young people like Mr. Lee (in Korean, you say the family name first), who'd been radicalized by the Kwangju uprising and massacre, had decided the way to fight for democracy in South Korea was to get jobs in the chaebols and organize unions. It quickly became clear to us that the reason that Myunjae had been imprisoned was not that he was an agent of communist North Korea as the government had charged him with, but that his crime had been trying to unionize the politically powerful chaebols.
One of the ways that Amnesty International works is by making governments know that, as students yelled during the 1968 Democratic Convention protests, that "the whole world is watching."
Lee was sentenced to 3-5 years. He was released in a little over a year. We don't know for sure, and probably never will know, whether our efforts contributed to his release, but it's a pretty good bet.
Since 1990, democracy has thrived in South Korea. The chaebols, which depended on corruption and government favors to survive, began to collapse-- from 1997-1999, 11 of the 30 biggest chaebols collapsed.
Around the same time, a military dictatorship seized power in Myanmar (formerly Burma). The military has controlled the ecomomy, relying on forced labor. Between 1988 and 1990, a student protest movement was crushed brutally, resulting in thousands of deaths.
Now, a movement, started by students and this time supported by Buddhist monks, is challenging the military dictatorship again.
To be honest, Bush's speech threatening more sanctions took me by surprise. Since Burma doesn't have a lot of oil, I didn't think the administration would bother with it.
We learned, from South Korea, that if dictators know that the world is watching them, they proceed with caution. Let your House Representative and Senators know that this is important. Go to these sites and find your reps-- email, call or write them. Let them know that the whole world is watching-- or at least you are.
House of Representatives Website