This past January, I traveled with a team from the International Human Rights Clinic to a small rural community on the border of Thailand and Myanmar. While the Clinic had been there many times before, it was my first time to meet the survivors of a brutal military offensive in Eastern Myanmar. As children ran up and down the aisles of the makeshift meetinghouse, we spoke with the villagers about the document we had written—a document that was, in a sense, their own.
On the strength of more than 1,000 pages of their testimony, we had produced a legal memorandum that made a case for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It also implicated current high-ranking military and government officials. Last November, when it was released, the findings sparked a discussion about accountability in a country that is, for the most part, considered to be on the path to reform.
When we finished telling the villagers all of this, I expected people to ask questions or to begin filtering down the dusty aisles towards the exits. Instead, after a few more minutes of silence, a man stood up and began telling us a story about his life. After he finished, another person rose to speak. Slowly, one by one, more came forward to talk to us.
As the crowd dwindled, one woman approached, her young son’s arms wrapped tightly around her neck, and started telling her story. A few years earlier, the Myanmar military had come into her village, shooting at people and burning homes as they moved through the streets. She took shelter in the jungle with her children, but without proper food or medicine, one of them died; then another; then a third.
I knew this story. I had read it back in Cambridge while working on the Clinic’s legal memorandum. But it was one thing to process her story from a distance. It was another to stand in front of her.
I have always believed in the power of storytelling to create empathy and human connection. But somewhere along the way in law school, I lost sight of it. I got distracted, poring over pages of documents, piecing together facts, checking grammar, debating sentence structure. It was easy to forget that at the heart of the Clinic’s work are people, wanting to be heard.
For those three weeks in January, our clinical team listened to people all over Myanmar. We heard about ongoing abuses in Shan State and Kachin State. We heard about police crackdowns at Letpadaung. The stories are everywhere.
Ironically enough, a story I heard back in Cambridge left one of the deepest impressions. It came from U Teikkha Nyana, a monk who participated in a panel discussion the Clinic organized on accountability in Myanmar.
Speaking in his crimson robes via Skype, U Teikkha Nyana took the audience of law students and professors back to a dark, brisk night in Letpadaung in northern Myanmar, where hundreds of monks were lined up in peaceful protest outside of a copper mine. First, he recalled how the police doused the men with water; then, how they shot canisters of white phosphorus, an acidic weapon that burns flesh.
“We kept our heads down, covered ourselves with robes and blankets, and took the brunt of it,” U Teikkha Nyana told us.
He waited for his words to be translated, then began again.
“My robes and blankets that were soaking wet suddenly caught on fire . . . . I was engulfed in flames.”
Another pause, as the audience absorbed those words.
“I raised my arms up and screamed at them, ‘Look what you have done. Do you see what you have done?’”
From the moment U Teikkha Nyana started speaking, I was captivated. It was more than just the words that he spoke. It was seeing him speak, hearing the inflection in his voice, seeing the look in eyes—the depth of compassion, pain, and ultimately hope. I already knew the facts about the crackdown in Letpadaung; I had read the statistics. But here was one man, in front of me, telling his story, a small window into the experiences of others like him who have also suffered.
It brought me back to that day in the village, when one person after another stepped forward—story after story, followed by a sea of handshakes and heartfelt thanks.
There is no one way to achieve accountability in Myanmar. That much is clear. Different communities and advocates will have different ideas, and it is not my place to define that path. But at the center of it all, surely, are stories—the stories of the many who have suffered, from the villagers at the border of Thailand and Myanmar, to the monks whose burns are still healing. These stories should be heard. These stories need to be a part of the conversation.
U Teikkha Nyana and the villagers at the heart of the Clinic’s work: thank you for sharing your stories. I, for one, feel honored to have heard them.
Below is the video from the Clinic’s panel discussion featuring U Teikkha Nyana, who is suing the Home Affairs Minister, Major General Ko Ko, for his responsibility in the Letpadaung crackdown. Ko Ko is one of the high-ranking government officials implicated in the Clinic’s legal memorandum. The panel also included U Teikkha Nyana’s lawyer, U Aung Thein; Roger Normand, of Justice Trust; and Matt Smith, of Fortify Rights.