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Freedom Fighters

Zaw Win helped to organize this weekend's conference of democracy activists. (photos by Rose Mattrey)

This weekend Burmese democracy activists converge in Buffalo to plan the liberation of their home country

At the corner of Massachusetts and Chenango on Buffalo’s West Side, a few dozen washers and dryers line the walls of the unassuming storefront that hosts the West Side Value Laundromat. Roseanne Barr glares down from a wall. The poster that features the comedienne in all her chubby-cheeked glory displays a printing date of 1991, a time when Barr was unarguably much more relevant than she is today. As I gawk at the yellow-stained fades stretching across the poster’s border, 1991 seems distant to me.

Zaw Win, a neighborhood resident and proprietor of the newly opened West Side Value Laundromat, remembers 1991 all too well. “They put me in a prison with hard labor for four years because I was fighting for freedom and democracy,” he says.

Zaw, now 40 years old, became a political prisoner in his native Burma at age 18, while still in high school. He picked up a good chunk of his secondary education (including the English language) by reading and writing on the prison floor. Pencil and paper weren’t allowed.

Today, Zaw is one of around 3,000 Burmese refugees residing in Buffalo. As Burma’s military dictatorship has become more brutal and isolating in recent years, Buffalo has become a hotbed for refugees like Zaw. This weekend, May 22 & 23, Buffalo State College will host refugees and activists from all over the US and the world—from as far away as Norway and South Korea—as they meet for the International Burma Democratic Conference for Abolishing Military Dictatorship, for which Zaw serves as a subcommittee chair.

Nothing appears extraordinary about Zaw Win at first, aside from his broken English, for which he repeatedly apologizes. Once he starts diving deeper and deeper into his personal story though, one can see how imperative the fight really is, especially to him.

Following a political upheaval in 1962 that stripped the Burmese of democracy and installed a military regime in its place, a tidal wave of poverty and oppression devastated the country, and conditions have only worsened over time. The Burma Socialist Programme Party was the lone political party in the country from the 1960s until 1988, at which point power was transferred in name to the State Peace and Development Council—which preached practically the same ethos and ideals as its military predecessor and continues to rule the country, which it dubbed the Union of Myanmar, with an iron fist today. The country has a population of around 50 million today.

Growing up in Burma in the 1970s and 1980s, Zaw had to resort to underground news sources to find out about his country’s history rather than textbooks and teachers. “We tried asking for information but we didn’t really know what happened before the military takeover,” he says. “What is democracy and what is freedom? I needed to learn.” When students from a nearby university distributed pamphlets to him, Zaw realized that there was an alternative to the totalitarian one-party system, which infringed greatly on the people’s human rights.

If you see an Aung San Suu Kyi t-shirt this weekend, welcome its wearer to Buffalo.

“There was no student union and we wanted to organize,” Zaw says. “We needed a union so we could have more power.”

Organizing of any sort, whether a labor union or a high school student group, is illegal in Burma. The last time a student union had been formed at Zaw’s school, the military destroyed several buildings on campus with dynamite. In 1991, when Zaw tried to organize a student union, his punishment was prison.

After serving four years behind bars, Zaw fled to Thailand, where he lived for several years illegally, without proper identification or documentation. Even still, he managed to form a worker’s union for migrant workers in hopes of establishing equality and rights for his peers. He helped operate a clinic, was sold against his will into a human trafficking ring, escaped into Malaysia, and, like a few thousand others, ended up, somehow, in Buffalo, 12,000 miles from home.

Once he gained official status as a refugee, Zaw worked hard to bring the rest of his family out of Asia and into Buffalo. He’s lived on Massachusetts Avenue, around the corner from his laundromat, for four and a half years now.

Burma’s political leaders installed a new constitution in 2008 in an attempt to construct a façade of democracy atop its continuing program of repression. “The constitution is not right,” Zaw says. “It tells the people to write down this one, this one, and this one and this one, and then you’re voting by force. The people are like, ‘Yes or no?’ and they say, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ We don’t like this election or this constitution.”

Reworking the constitution in hopes of installing a new governing system is among the goals toward which the attendees at next week’s conference will be working.

“Unfortunately, right now, we cannot change anything for the people,” Zaw says. “The country’s situation is worse and worse. Right now, we know a lot of people across the country and some people from abroad who are interested in changing the country to democracy. That’s why, right now, we are trying to change. A lot of opposition leaders, they try to find so many ways to change the country. We want to fight against the military dictatorship now.”

Buffalo has become an important hub for the Burmese diaspora in the US. While he cites the budding Burmese population of Buffalo to be around 3,000, Denise Beehag, the Director of Refugee and Employment Services at the International Institute of Buffalo, estimates it to be closer to 4,000. Established in 1918, the International Institute is a nonprofit that assists immigrants, refugees, and others facing linguistic and cultural barriers that might otherwise prohibit their access to the greater sense of community that exists in Western New York. Beehag’s program helps settle around 300 refugees from around the world into the Buffalo area every year.

The International Institute is one of four resettlement agencies in the area that work with incoming refugees, and each one must make an annual plan to address the next year’s influx of immigrants. In just so happens, says Beehag, that in the eyes of the national agencies that oversee the proposals, Buffalo is a great place for newcomers. Factors like the cost of housing obviously play a role. (“Living is cheaper than other states and other cities,” Zaw says. “One bedroom is $700 in New York City. Here, two bedrooms for $350.”) Community support and continued growth of particular ethnic communities play a key role in refugee intake, too. As the population of Burmese in Buffalo expands each year, the community becomes ever more stable and welcoming to ne refugees, which is how Buffalo has become the hub for Burmese immigrants that it is today. “There is an ethnic community here that can support the refugees,” says Beehag. “And, to be honest, it’s the city of good neighbors. It’s pretty welcoming to refugees.”

While Zaw and a few other refugees are working hard to put the final touches on this weekend’s conference at Buffalo State, Beehag and the International Institute are working on a fundraiser for this October. And while Zaw’s campaign is perhaps a little more goal-oriented in regards to the big picture—democtacy and freedom—Beehag works to raise awareness of a community whose members now make up more than one percent of Buffalo’s population. “We really want to make people more aware of the Burmese community,” she says. “It’s a fascinating community. Because it is such a large group, we just to bring a little bit more of the culture and their stories to the public.”

Fascinating doesn’t even begin to describe Zaw Win. His eyes light up when discussing this weekend’s conference, and often he takes to his feet and speaks with his hands, articulating in elaborate gestures what his rough English won’t allow him to put into words.

Zaw is far more concerned with fighting for democracy in Burma than living the American dream, even if he has found relative success in his new country, where he drives a new car, owns a business, and is raising a family. “We need to fight back in so many ways,” he says, reclining on a small sofa inside the laundromat with his laptop. He three ways in particular: nonviolent confrontation, diplomatic negotiation, and armed revolution. “Armed revolution is fighting back for our freedom, our rights,” Zaw says. “It’s not terrorism.” The sad reality, he says, is that fighting fire with fire is perhaps the most viable method in the face of a military regime unwilling to change or to listen.

To Zaw Win, though, progress must be made somehow. Burmese fighting for democracy from abroad must unite. “Violence or nonviolence, we need to fight back,” Zaw says. ”

To learn more about this weekend’s conference, visit

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