North Korea Hackathon in Silicon Valley (Behind the Scenes!)

The winning team with the North Korean judges, and the heads of Human Rights Foundation

The winning team with the North Korean judges, and the heads of Human Rights Foundation

This past weekend, a North Korea Hackathon took place in Silicon Valley, hopefully the first of many. The New York City-based Human Rights Foundation organized this event in San Francisco that drew a diverse crowd of about one hundred people, including engineers, college students, investors, journalists, and four prominent North Korean defectors. People who do excellent research, writing, and journalism like Martyn Williams, Chad O’Carroll, and Kurt Achin were there. The goal of this weekend was to tap into the Silicon Valley’s brains and skills to come up with creative solutions to send foreign media and information into North Korea, the most intentionally isolated regime in the world. As many of you know, accessing foreign information is highly dangerous for North Korean people, yet many risk their lives to secretly watch dvds, read foreign news, and listen to radio programs in order to desperately learn more about their world outside North Korea. You could read more about the happenings throughout the hackathon in real journal articles that I’ll share below, so I’ll refrain from describing much of the event’s official agenda in this blog post.

HACKATHON: DAY ZERO. I flew in on Friday, the day before the hackathon to meet up with Mr. Kim Heung Kwang, the executive director of North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity (click here for English version) and the other three North Korean defectors who were all flying in from Seoul. The Wikimedia Foundation graciously hosted us and the Human Rights Foundation organizers for a wonderful dinner at their headquarters office in San Francisco to learn more about the individuals’ work centered on sending information into North Korea against the regime’s will. There was a lot of conversation around how the Korean wikipedia is already being sent into North Korea onto USB thumb drives, and more side discussions about how more individuals and organizations can get add to this effort.

The four North Korean guests and myself at Wikimedia, Wikipedia's foundation

The four North Korean guests and myself at Wikimedia, Wikipedia’s foundation

I think that the delicious southern-inspired meal was too heavy for the defectors, so after the Wikimedia dinner, the North Korean guests, two bilingual friends, and I walked into Chinatown to eat Chinese food and have some Japanese and Chinese beer.  Interspersed with lots of laughter, Mr. Park shared stories about how he got into a lot of scuffles in Seoul for the work that he does.

HACKATHON: DAY ONE. Jetlagged, the four North Koreans and their facilitators, including myself, piled into cabs to head over to the hackathon venue where we had bagels, yogurt, and fruit for breakfast. “I don’t know how you Americans could eat bread all day long. I need rice!” one North Korean guest said.  The other three laughed, and said that he brought microwaveable rice and kim-chi, a Korean staple side dish, with him in his luggage from Seoul. Another said, ‘Don’t you bring that kim-chi out here…the Americans will run away from you if you bring that out! Instead, hand it over to me. I’ll eat it!”

Each of the four gave brief introductions about their individual defections, background stories, and their respective NGOs’ work before the eight hack teams broke out to start brainstorming, coding, and creating their tech solutions to help bring information into North Korea.

[Left] Henry Song, an incredible Korean-American translating for Mr. Kim. [Right] Mr. Kim Heung Kwang (Executive Director of North Korea Intellectual Solidarity) introducing himself.

[Left] Henry Song, an incredible Korean-American translating for Mr. Kim.
[Right] Mr. Kim Heung Kwang (Executive Director of North Korea Intellectual Solidarity) introducing himself.

Kim Heung Kwang is a North Korean defector and a former professor at Pyongyang Computer Technology University. He graduated from the Kim Chaek University of Technology in Pyongyang, where he majored in data processing. Kim pursued graduate  studies at Hamheung Computer College, where he studied operating systems, hardware technology and network theory. He spent 19 years training students for the North Korean regime’s cyberwarfare units. Kim was also in charge of analyzing seized contraband South Korean television dramas and foreign books, until he was caught renting some of the classified loot to a friend. He escaped North Korea in 2003 through China and settled in Seoul. In 2008, he founded the North Korea Intellectuals Society, a group of high-level defectors that promotes freedom, democracy, and human rights for North Korea. As the executive director of NKIS, Kim conducts research on unification, formulates and critiques ideas on how to foster North Korean civil society, and cultivates the skills of North Korean defector intellectuals.

Ms. Yeon-Mi Park speaking about how watching an illegal copy of "The Titanic" convinced her to defect from North Korea

Ms. Yeon-Mi Park speaking about how watching an illegal copy of “The Titanic” convinced her to defect from North Korea

Park Yeonmi is a North Korean refugee and an expert on the country’s black market economy. As a child, Park lived as part of North Korea’s elite until the regime punished her father and banished him and his family to the northern part of the country, where poverty, starvation, and “disappearances” became a part of everyday life. Park and her family escaped North Korea through China and Mongolia in 2007. She is currently a media fellow at Freedom Factory, a think tank based in Seoul, and studies at Dongguk University. She co-hosts the “Casey and Yeon Mi Show,’’ a podcast about North Korean issues, and is featured on “Now On My Way to Meet You,” a TV show in which North Korean women discuss their past and present lives.

Mr. Choi, speaking on behalf of the North Korea Strategy Center in Seoul. He was a dentist in North Korea

Mr. Choi, speaking on behalf of the North Korea Strategy Center in Seoul. He was a dentist in North Korea

Choi Song Il is a North Korean refugee who worked as a dentist before escaping the country. Choi lived in China for two years until he was caught and repatriated back to North Korea, where he was incarcerated in a detention facility for six months. On his second attempt to escape, Choi successfully arrived in South Korea. He obtained an undergraduate degree from Yonsei University in management and worked in the private sector for five years. Determined to work for the rights of North Koreans, Choi joined the North Korea Strategy Center (NKSC) in 2010. Choi has conducted many research projects regarding the North Korean people’s change of consciousness and oversees NKSC’s North Korean field operations and media dissemination projects. He recently obtained a master’s degree in political science with a special focus on North Korea.

Mr. Park Sang-Hak, aka "Enemy Zero" according to the North Korean government. He leads the Fighters for Free North Korea

Mr. Park Sang-Hak, aka “Enemy Zero” according to the North Korean government. He leads the Fighters for Free North Korea

Park Sang Hak is a North Korean defector and democracy activist. Park worked in a propaganda unit of the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League until 1999, when his father, a spy for the government, defected with his family to South Korea. Since then, Park has worked for the democratization of his homeland. He is the chairman of Fighters for a Free North Korea, an organization that uses helium-nitrogen balloons to float human rights and pro-democracy literature, DVDs, USB drives, and transistor radios from South Korea into North Korea. Park’s educational efforts constitute such a serious threat to the Kim dictatorship’s mass brainwashing system that he is known as “enemy zero”. As a result, Park was the target of an assassination attempt in 2011 at the hands of a North Korean spy using poisoned needles.

Each of the eight teams broke into groups and sat around this warehouse space and spewed ideas about how they could get information in and out of the country. Ideas ranged from super low tech (e.g. slingshots to get USBs from China into North Korea across the Tumen River) to much more high tech ideas that used satellite networks to enable intra-country communication among North Koreans. My North Korean friends kept sharing their surprise over how so many non-ethnic Korean Americans were so passionate about coming up with solutions help inform North Koreans about the outside world. This hackathon scene, where people were scrambling to come up with ideas to help North Koreans,would never happen in South Korea, they said.

Mr. Kim speaking with one of the hackathon teams on Day 1 of the hackathon

Mr. Kim speaking with one of the hackathon teams on Day 1 of the hackathon

HACKATHON: DAY TWO.  We spent the morning speaking to journalists and chatting about different ideas over delicious Ritual coffee in the hackathon space. In the early afternoon, each of the eight teams presented their ideas for four minutes each and answered questions for two minutes each. You could see the winning team “Team SkyLife” present their idea in the photo below.

The winning hackathon team presenting

The winning hackathon team presenting their idea

“The winners were Team Skylife, made up of Matthew Lee, a former Google employee now working on a stealth start-up in San Francisco, and Justice and Madison Suh, a 17-year-old brother-sister pair who had flown from Virginia to compete in the event. Their winning concept involved the use of Luneberg lens research to develop flat, iPad-sized satellite receivers that could be snuck into North Korea through smuggling routes on the Chinese border, or floated into the country via hydrogen balloons from South Korea. These portable, easily concealable devices would hook into the pre-existing coaxial and USB technology commonly found in North Korea and pick up signals from Skylife, a South Korean broadcaster that sends more than 200 channels of programming to customers in China. The panel of judges – consisting of North Korean defectors, Silicon Valley tech executives, and HRF senior staff – were impressed by the potential impact the concept could have on information flow into the world’s most closed society.” [HRF]

The judges panel

The judges panel (from left to right):Yeonmi Park, Park Sang-Hak, Kim Heung-Kwang, Sarah Wasserman (HRF), Alex Loyd (angel investor for “Disrupt NK” campaign”, and Henry Song in the back

After the event ended, the different teams continued to develop their ideas in order to possibly implement them with the help of the North Koreans’ contacts and NGOs. Afterwards, the North Korean guests and I went to a dinner with the San Francisco chapter of South Korea’s National Reunification Advisory Council, who asked a lot of questions to our guests about their lives and experiences from defection to their assimilation process in South Korea.  Exhausted, the four guests, Henry Song, and I went to Twin Peaks close to midnight to try to catch a glimpse of the city through the fog. Though we couldn’t see past 5 feet in front of us, it was nice to “drink the clouds” as Mr. Kim said.

 

민주평통 탈북자  단체사진 (3)

POST HACKATHON: A few of the guests stayed for the day after the hackathon, so we went sightseeing. Alex Gladstein, an associate at HRF, graciously drove us around San Francisco. It was so nice to be back in the city I lived in for two years!  Wael Ghonim, the Googler who was credited to having a significant impact on the Egyption Revolution in 2011, hosted us along with his two colleagues Osman and Karim, for lunch at a *delicious* Middle Eastern restaurant in Sunnyvale. Over lamb and yogurt, we talked about shadow internet and its various applications. After having baklava to finish our meal, our team drove up to Stanford to check out its beautiful campus. We continued to drive north around Corona Heights, Hayes valley (my old neighrbood!), and had coffee, beer, and wine to enjoy the afternoon.

Yeon-Mi Park at my old office!

Yeon-Mi Park !

I look them to where I used to work and took a ton of photos! I'm including just a few here

I look them to where I used to work and took a ton of photos! I’m including just a few here

A selfie with our North Korean guests and Alex Gladstein, an associate at the Human Rights Foundation, at the top of

A selfie with our North Korean guests and Alex Gladstein, an associate at the Human Rights Foundation, at the top of

 

Spending four full days with old and new friends from North Korea centered on the idea to bring information into North Korea was both heartbreaking and inspiring.  If you are interested in helping any of these organizations, please let me know!

 


See below for news articles about the hackathon:

WSJ

Silicon Valley Takes on North Korea

the guardian logo

Hackers design clandestine aerials to help North Koreans watch banned TV

FAST_COMPANY_LOGO

Can Hackers Help Save North Korea?

ars-technica-logo
Idea to develop flat TV antennas wins “Hack North Korea” competition

Verge-logo

How Silicon Valley wants to hack North Korea

Gizmodo logo

Plan for Secret Satellite Receivers Wins Hackathon to Help North Korea

IBT_logo

Hack North Korea: Silicon Valley Wants To Bring Information To Pariah State

“북한을 해킹하라” – Hack North Korea

Human Rights Foundation
보도자료
2014. 8.6  샌프란시스코
북한을  해킹하라”  – Hack North Korea

Park Sang Hak

8월 2일과 3일 양일간 미국 뉴욕의 인권재단( Human Rights Foundation, HRF)은  ‘북한을 해킹하라’ 라는 컨퍼런스 행사를 주최하였다. 본 회의를 통해 샌프란시스코의 다양한 IT 기술진, 엔지니어들과  탈북자들이 한자리에 모여 전세계에서 가장 심한 정보통제 및 단절을 겪고 있는 북한주민들 에게 어떻게 미디어를 통해 다가갈 것인지에 대한 다각도의 토론과 논의가 펼쳐졌다.

재단의 사무총장 사라 와서만 (Sarah Wasserman) 은 “최근 몇 년간 용기있는 탈북자들을 통해 간헐적으로 북한땅에도 북한정권이 통제하고 있는 세상에 대한 소식들과 정보가 전달 되어 지고 있다” 면서,  “이런 정보유입을 통해 북 정권 붕괴의 초석이 마련되어 지고 있으나, 국제사회의 도움 없이 탈북자 개개인이 신상의 위험을 무릎 쓰고 각자 노력 하는 상황에 대해 안타깝게 생각” 하였기에 실리콘 밸리를 중심으로 활동하는 정보기술 전문가들을 초청해 좀더 심도 있고 체계적인 정보유입을 통한 북한의 변화를 도모하는 자리를 마련했다고 밝혔다.

‘북한을 해킹하라’ 에는 여러 비즈니스 대표들과 방송계, 그리고 인권단체들도 함께 하였으며, 행사에서 발제 된 여러 아이디어들과 방안들은 한국에서 활발히 활동하고 있는 탈북자 활동가 그룹을 중심으로 적용될 예정이다.  본 회의에서는 박상학, 박연미, 김흥광 등의 탈북자들이 초청되었으며 이들을 통해 현 북한 정보통제 상황 및 현재 이루어 지고 있는 DVD, USB 및 대북풍선 및 단파 라디오 프로그램을 통한  정보 유입 방식 등에 관한 브리핑을 받고, 이어 미 기술진들이 협력하여 새로운 방안을 이틀간 모색하였다.

또한, 심사위원들에 의해 채택된 가장 우수한 제안서는 인권재단의 재정지원을 받아  ‘정보통제를  방해하라’ (Disrupt North Korea) 프로젝트의 일환으로 추진된다. 이 외에도, 특히 자유북한운동연합의 박상학 대표는  “이곳에서 마련된 새로운 GPS 시스템을 앞으로 남한땅에서 날려질 대북풍선에 장착하여 풍선의 경로 및 도착지점 등을  더욱 정확히 파악 할 수 있을것” 이라고 기대감을 표했다.

한편, ‘북한을 해킹하라’ 에서 제안된 여러 아이디어들은 “보안을 위해 대부분 비밀로 부쳐질 것” 이며, 국내 북한인권 단체들의 소중한 자원으로 사용될 것이라고 와서만(Wasserman) 대표는 밝혔다. 아울러 재단의 활동대표 알렉스 글래드스테인 (Alex Gladstein) 씨는 본 컨퍼런스가 “실리콘밸리 기업들이 가지고 있는 최고의 정보관련기술이 세계에서 가장 심각한 독재정권인 북한체체의 실제적인 변화를 가져오는데 귀한 통로로 쓰여지길 바란다”며  본 행사의 의의를 정의했다.

10 North Korean Millennials in New York City, July 17, 2014

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For those of you in New York City who are interested in learning about North Korean youth’s identity in South Korea, please register for this event.  The Korean American Community Foundation is sponsoring “North Korean Millenials: Exploring Identity and Place” on Thursday, July 17, 2014 in the Engelman Recital Hall at Baruch Performing Arts Center.

 

Registration is at 6:30pm; Program is 7:00-9:00pm.

Lessons from our visit to the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights

Photo  of our group and members of the Citizens' Alliance of North Korean Human Rights

Photo of our group and members of the Citizens’ Alliance of North Korean Human Rights

As part of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Asia Leadership Trek, my 40 classmates and I visited the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights in Seoul to learn about the abhorrent human rights situation in North Korea.  Personally, I have been learning about these issues for almost 10 years now, but the shocking nature of the situation still hasn’t worn off, nor should it. I have heard so much about this organization’s good work and was excited to finally meet some of the individuals who are helping to run this organization.

The event kicked off with a 20-minute documentary that shared some facts about the North Korean prison camps, forced labor, widespread starvation, public executions, and the horrendous realities around defections. Familiar faces such as Kim Young-Soon and Kang Chol-Hwan came on the screen and spoke about their experiences when they were living under this regime.  I first heard some sniffles and gasps, and as the documentary continued to play, I heard soft sobbing behind me (I sat in the front row), and classmates offering tissues to each other.  After the documentary ended, Michele and Miri briefly introduced Ms. Kim EunJu to speak about her experiences living inside North Korea before she defected.

Ms. EunJu Kim. The young, petite woman who was sitting a few feet away from us was sharing about her experiences in a world that was a universe away. Though it’s easy to know the fact that North Korea is less than 60 miles north of where we were sitting, it was just so difficult to understand just how such a horrific place could exist this day in age, in a place so geographically close to us.   As I looked around the room, I saw my classmates and friends—people representing 22 nations—who were hanging onto every word coming out of this young woman’s mouth.  People’s eyes were glued to Ms. EunJu, and for those who were meeting a North Korean defector for the first time, or were learning about the human rights violations in the regime for the first time, I could tell that their worlds were being transformed.

Classmates formed a circle around me during our 10-minute break to ask me question after question to clarify their understanding of the social, legal, political, and humanitarian situation of North Korean citizens and refugees. Why and, more simply, how could the Chinese government forcibly repatriate these refugees? How could they be considered as economic migrants and not refugees who were desperately seeking political asylum and basic liberties? How could our governments, and private actors not doing more to bring down this despicable, despicable regime?

After we left the Citizens’ Alliance office and loaded the bus, my classmates continued to ask me questions centered more on actions that they could take. My 40 classmates and friends, dressed in somewhat geeky red Asia Leadership Trek polo shirts, come from 22 nations, and are diplomats, military servicemen, deans of universities, politicians, consultants, and NGO members back home. A 90-minute meeting with this organization with a purpose-driven passion instilled outrage, heartbreak, and disbelief in these 40 people, and I have faith that these classmates and I will work to transform this outrage of the egregious injustices we learned about into practical, compassionate action to help create changes for North Korean people.

A baby has no past. Yet political constructs dividing countries like North and South Korea determine people’s fates before they are even born.  Human beings are born as equal creatures in the eyes of God and I am fascinated by how humanity — with all of its complexities and similarities– is segregated by man-made boundaries and are destined to fulfill extraordinarily different fates that are largely determined by the political circumstances into which they are born.  The sheer arbitrariness of people’s birthplaces obligates some people with moral duties to serve those who have been born in countries with fewer opportunities and freedoms.  As my classmates and I have been fortunate enough to have been born in countries whose political leaderships allows us freedom and education, I believe we all have a moral duty to channel our fervent commitment to human equality to help protect the basic rights for those citizens who are born under this regime that refuses to protect and provide for its citizens.

Some people may be skeptical of the awareness-raising efforts of the North Korean human rights situation. After all, naming and shaming this regime hasn’t led to any meaningful changes to its behavior towards its citizens. However, I have full faith that with more and more passionate, compassionate, and empowered people who are educated with these issues, changes to the human rights situation inside this regime, and the very existence of this regime, will occur in our lifetime.

Panel

Panel

 

Classmate from Denmark asking a question to the panel

Classmate from Denmark asking a question to the panel

 

Classmates and I chatting during break

Classmates and I chatting during break

Yangon, a Cursory Introduction to Myanmar

Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda

With any visit to a new place, fully knowing a country is impossible, much less with a brief visit to one city, especially if that city one of the wealthiest cities in a poor country. But from my few days in Yangon that were jam-packed meetings, interrupted by torrential rain, and where I was  bothered by very determined mosquitoes, I learned that this is an extremely complicated nation striving towards healing, reconciliation, and unity, a nation that I would love to visit again and again in the near future. The society is marred by well-known cancers: the absolutely reprehensible treatment of the Rohingyas, the exclusion of other ethnic groups for the sake of a cohesive national identity, and extreme poverty that is stunting a generation of children. But who said transitioning from a military dictatorship to a democratic society was easy?

I sat in the window seat of our bus throughout our time in Myanmar, and quietly watched people living their lives. I tried to control my attitude and told myself that this was not a voyeuristic exercise, but one of learning and absorbing another’s culture and way of life. Like in any other country — rich or poor, democratic or not –, I watched men and women hustling, trying to make a living by selling coffee under dirt-covered umbrellas, young kids selling gum and tissue packs, and young school girls wearing green longyis with Barbie backpacks walking, hand-in-hand, to wherever they needed to go. I watched young boys, maybe 12 or 13 years old, teasing their girl classmates on the streets, trying to get a rise out of them. Prepubescent flirting, I call it.  There were older girls, maybe late teens or early twenties, wearing heavy eye make up (much like myself) complete with Tha Nat Khar, strolling around in their skinny jeans with swag in their step.

I must admit that the familiarity of what I witnessed from my window seat was relieving. Yes, there is much, much more to people and their realities than what meets the eye, but the familiarity of life on the streets in a country that has been notorious for being closed off just until a few years ago, revealed that humans truly are experts at surviving. The brutal Burmese dictatorship failed to strip the dignity and self-determination of its people, and they eventually failed at sustaining its regime. I suspect that this country will take decades to reverse damages done by the previous government, and to work toward a peaceful domestic existence. But as an outsider, I am thrilled that the country has made the first critical step of transitioning out of authoritarian rule, and is making strides to achieve what its people have been fighting for for so long. I have no doubt that this recent history can, and will, be repeated in the last few remaining dictatorships in our near future.

School's out!

School’s out!

School bus

School bus

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IMG_4124 IMG_3845

Longyi store in the Bogyoke Aung San Market

Longyi store in the Bogyoke Aung San Market

Street Coffee Shops

Street Coffee Shops

“Come with Me. I have to show you something.” My Conversation with a Burmese Monk

My and a Buddhist monk at Schwedagon Pagoda

Me and a Buddhist monk at Schwedagon Pagoda

Walking barefoot on wet marbled floors of the Shwedagon Pagoda, I tried to serenely be present and absorb the glittering beauty that is the Shwedagon Pagoda while sheepishly snapping photos like any other tourist. I inched around the main pagodas, and watched as people came to burn incense, say their prayers, and quietly find peace, at least for a few minutes. I watched young couples, holding hands and flirtatiously passing their time. Groups of girlfriends sat on steps, chatting away.

I stood still, looking up at the blue evening sky, punctuated by heavy clouds, and focusing on the tip of the 368-foot tall spire. This is SO much gold, I thought. Pretty different from the churches I attended, growing up.

“Do you see the diamond?”

Someone with a heavy accent interrupted my thoughts. I turned to where the voice was coming from, pretty sure that the question was not meant for me. But there he was, a middle-aged Buddhist monk, medium build, wrapped in a reddish-brownish monastic robe, looking at me and waiting for a response.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. Diamond?”

“Come with me. I need to show you something.” Without looking back at me, this monk took off, expecting me to trail behind him and await his instructions. A sense of familiarity, a feeling that usually does not describe the first two minutes of a first meeting between two strangers, shrouded my and the monk’s bond. I obediently followed, and put my feet on an unmarked spot that the monk pointed to on the ground. He instructed me to stand in that very specific spot and then look up.  I saw a huge glittery white mark at the top of the spire. It’s a 76 carat diamond that can be seen from only specific angles from the ground level, he told me.  When he sensed that the novelty of the giant diamond wore off on me, he beckoned with his head for me to follow him, and took off again. I followed him, and just as expected, he had another hard-to-find element of the Pagoda to show me. This happened repeatedly.

There were no introductions made between us, no skepticism, no ambivalence, nor suspected ulterior motives that marred this special moment for me. I asked questions about this history of the pagoda, his relationship to the pagoda, his daily routine as a Buddhist monk, and what he thought about my country, the United States. It was time for me to meet up with my group again, so when I pressed my hands together and said thank you, he smiled, pressed his hands together as well, and we parted.

To this day, I don’t know his name, nor does he know mine. All I have is a photo that we took together that captures the fact that despite the different worlds in which we live — a Korean American twenty-something girl, and a Buddhist monk who was raised in a Burmese monastery — we could instantly connect on the common grounds that we have a shared humanity. No questions asked, no introductions needed.

Cool girls at the Shwedagon Pagoda

Cool girls at the Shwedagon Pagoda

Schwedagon Pagoda

Schwedagon Pagoda

Me and a beautiful friend at Schwedagon Pagoda

Me and a beautiful friend at Schwedagon Pagoda

Myanmar: A Long Arduous Journey towards Democracy

Me and a larger-than-life banner of Aung San Suu Kyi in front of the headquarter office of the National League for Democracy

Me and a larger-than-life banner of Aung San Suu Kyi in front of the headquarter office of the National League for Democracy

 

“Minglaba!”

The kind faces of several women wearing beautiful longyis greeted the trekkers and welcomed us into the headquarter office of the National League for Democracy. Larger-than-life banners and posters of Aung San Suu Kyi, or “The Lady” of Myanmar, surrounded the small entrance to their party office. On either side of the front door were street coffee vendors with kid-sized plastic chairs and tables covered in dirt, with stray dogs and cats lazily hanging out under the vendors’ carts, finding respite from the humid heat.  (Remember, this is in the middle of June.)  These coffee vendors were seen everywhere across Yangon. As someone who has been following the NLD’s activities for some years now, I was greatly looking forward to this particular meeting. I looked at my classmates’ faces and observed slight bewilderment as they looked around with wide eyes. I knew what they were thinking: could this be the party headquarters office for the NLD? The party of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi,  the beautiful face and incorruptible figure of Myanmar in western media?  The room we walked into past the front door was dimly lit with an odd, yellow-ish light. Piles of old newspapers were scattered across table tops with few older men and women reading books, some on cell phones, casually fanning themselves. A few turned to look at who entered the office, and, with equal disinterest, turned back to what they were doing.

In a single-file line, we walked up a narrow flight of wooden stairs to the second floor, which was even hotter than the first floor. A non-English speaking elderly woman directed me and my friends into their conference room. This was another poorly lit room with a dozen or so chairs surrounding the four wooden tables pressed together. Old photos and bulletins of the NLD party were tacked onto the wooden columns around the room. More piles of newspapers and bulletins decorated this room, along with bronze busts of The Lady, and outdated NLD calendars. We sat around, murmuring amongst ourselves, red in the face from the heat, seeking direction for how we were going to spend the next hour together.

I was assigned to moderate this session, so I was getting pretty nervous as the older men in the room were not providing any direction. Someone said “Ah, I didn’t know so many people were coming” and yelled for more chairs. Plastic chairs were sent in, but the small space couldn’t hold forty chairs, so many stood, others perched on table corners. I took the seat next to the men wearing longyis and waited for everyone to get situated. Two fans were sent in, and I watched as my beautiful German classmate tried to plug the fan in. The plug refused to stay in the outlet; it kept falling out. She tried all sorts of angles to keep the plug inside the outlet, but this turned out to be a fruitless effort.  Each time the plug fell out and the fan stopped, more classmates became agitated.  Given how hot the air was, people sitting in that area were desperate for this sputtering fan to work. I turned to the speakers who were watching this same scene with amusement, and then turned back at my friends, determined to get this fan to work. I thought to myself, slightly annoyed, “Gosh, how many Harvard graduate students does it take to plug in a fan?” Another classmate offered to hold the plug into the outlet, but there wasn’t enough space for him to squeeze in around the others, so the fan issue was dropped. No more fan. I noticed that this conference room didn’t have a door in the door frame.

Three very old gentlemen, dark skinned, wearing collarless dress shirts and green longyis, stood next to me, waiting silently as the forty guests got settled in. These were patient men. Patient men with extreme gravitas, the type of weight and dignity that comes only with age, experience, and hardship. They have been fighting for democracy in their country that was previously controlled by a military dictatorship for decades. They had no problem waiting a few extra minutes for their fidgety guests to settle down.

I peered around the room, looked up at the three gentlemen from my seat, took a deep breath, smiled, and asked the group, “Shall we start?”

————-

The three men who held top leadership roles spoke to us at length about party’s efforts to engage the country’s youth and to incorporate them into the ongoing process of democratization. They shared some facts with us:

  • Among the 1.3 million NLD members across the country, 50,000 are under 30 years of age.
  • There are 280 township youth conferences
  • NLD runs 200 schools and provide free education, targeting students from poor backgrounds. They engage 20,000 students and about 1,000 teachers

They smiled, joking that they– at 65 and 70 years of age — were the young ones in the party, alluding to the reality that only small pockets of Myanmar’s youth are actively engaged in politics and efforts for social change. These are men who have been involved with the party since its inception in 1988, and have been part of the political struggle to open up Myanmar long before the 8888 Uprising. As part of their description of the difficulties of engaging youth into national politics, the men also stated that 1 million of Myanmar’s youth are currently working in Thailand.  Right when the country opened up with its first democratic elections in 2010, much of the frustrated youth tried to leave their country to pursue opportunities abroad. The combination of brain drain, corruption and mismanagement of resources at the national level, poverty, and ethnic strife continually disillusions this country’s young people — as it would in any other country — from getting involved in politics. This leaves the “young people,” the 60, 70 year old men and women, to push forward in this effort to democratize and unify a country marked with 65 years of domestic conflict and its continuing legacy, 135 ethnic groups (and many more unrecognized ethnic groups), and widespread poverty.

Ninety edifying (and very hot) minutes of discussion later, we made our way back to the rickety entrance of the building, and spent some time buying NLD paraphernalia, mostly with The Lady’s beautiful face on it. NLD was built around, and continues to be centered on, Aung San Suu Kyi, and this was reinforced when I looked around the NLD’s “concession stand.” T-shirts in different colors, books, calendars, fans, pamphlets, posters, pins all with images of her beautiful face and orchids in her updo were all for sale, presumably for mainly foreigners’ consumption. I bought a book on The Lady written by her cook who stayed in her home during her two decade-long house arrest. I also took a few photos with several young women who worked at the front desk who were wearing longyis and wore the Tha Nat Khar, the yellowish-white make up made from ground wood with which women paint shapes onto their faces. We all said Khay Zoo Tin Bar Dae, which means thank you, and parted ways.

We piled on the bus and debriefed the session. Some of my classmates expressed deep frustration and disappointment of the party leaders’ calm and peaceful demeanor that lacked an aura of urgency, passion, and verve. “No wonder Myanmar’s peace process is so slow,” a friend chided. Another classmate complained that the party leaders were too skittish about difficult subjects, such as the severe persecution of the Rohingyas in Rakhine State (which some refer to as the Rohingyas genocide), and the future of the NLD after Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer able to be politically active.

While these critical comments were being tossed around in our bus, I thought back to the old, wrinkled faces of the men who spoke, and imagined what their lives as political activists must have been like. How tired they must be. How drained they must be from fighting for a political situation that their nation could enjoy, without having sufficient funding, resources, or public recognition. How exhausted they must be from fighting for democratic values in a military dictatorship, and then not have widespread popular support when the country does open up. Of course there is no spirited zest, or a pep in their step! How could outsiders such as ourselves, who have no skin in the game, the game that is Myanmar’ democratic future, demand that these decades-old fighters have a renewed sense of almost juvenile-like rebellious spirit? This has been their lifelong commitment, and I honor their past, their continuing dedication to their country’s future, and their devotion to a democratic society.

I do not know what it is like to continually face physical and psychological danger to fight for something I crave, and I certainly do not know what it’s like to fight the same fight for decades without seeing an end in sight. But what I could reasonably suspect is that this ongoing fight for democracy by not just the NLD, but other political parties and organizations, is going to be a long, arduous journey.

 

First floor of the NLD Office

First floor of the NLD Office

The NLD office 'concession stand' [I bought a book from them]

The NLD office ‘concession stand’ [I bought a book from them]

Me and the ladies who work there. We're all in longyis and some of the ladies are wearing Thanaka, the yellowish-white make up

Me and the ladies who work there. We’re all in longyis and some of the ladies are wearing Thanaka, the yellowish-white make up