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AU Alum Pens Book Shining Light on Human Rights Violations in Burma

Maggie Lemere

Photo courtesy of Maggie Lemere

A nine year-old child soldier, a fifteen year-old girl trafficked into sex work, an imprisoned man starved and forced to risk his life on the battlefield for his captors – these are but a few stories of the atrocities in Burma that AU alumna Maggie Lemere, SIS/BA ’05, SIS/MA ’06, has collected for her upcoming book, Nowhere to Be Home: Narratives from Survivors of Burma’s Military Regime (Published March 2011, by McSweeney’s Voice of Witness).

Burma is a small Asian country controlled by an oppressive military regime, or junta, which severely restricts the freedoms of the Burmese people. Forced labor, lack of freedom of speech and religion, state-sanctioned torture and violence, and the recruitment of child soldiers are commonplace.

Lemere first discovered her passion for the plight of the Burmese people during her freshman year at AU, when she joined a campus group advocating for human rights reform. As a sophomore, she and fellow AU student Mike Haack, SIS/BA ’05, MA ’09, co-led an alternative break trip to the Burma/Thailand border where she and fellow AU students met with democratic opposition organizations as well as human rights and refugee assistance groups. Before she graduated, Lemere would lead three such trips.

Of her AU education, Lemere says, “I got a lot of practical experience, which gave me the confidence to go into the field, move abroad, and take on challenging and complex projects.”

While at AU, Lemere discovered her love of oral history working in Cuba with Professor Phillip Brenner, interviewing Americans and Cubans about U.S.-Cuba relations and the impact of artistic and educational exchange. Following her post-graduate fellowship, she worked in West Africa interviewing refugees and recording their stories of persecution. Lemere then moved to Thailand and worked as a teacher in EarthRights International’s EarthRights School of Burma. It was during her tenure there that Lemere was approached by Voice of Witness, a non-profit book series whose mission is to empower through storytelling those most closely affected by social injustice.

Voice of Witness asked Lemere to help compile stories from Burmese people for a book. Given her background in oral history as well as her experience and interest in Burma, she was perfect for the job. Over the next year, she and co-editor, Zoë West, travelled through Malaysia, Bangladesh, and even inside Burma interviewing 70 narrators from Burma, accumulating more than 400 hours of interviews.

Lemere and West chronicled the desperation and horrific circumstances the Burmese people have endured, and their stories are a testament to human resilience and bravery. Byin Pu was trafficked into sex work as a teenager, but through a combination of courage and luck, she managed to escape by leaping out of a third story window: “I looked around the room and saw that the window was not closed, and there was a screen to keep the mosquitoes out. I was three floors up. If I jumped, I would die. But if I died, it would at least be in an accident. I prayed again to God. If I died, I would not be able to support my family. But I did not want to live if I was raped.”

Hla Min was only nine years old when he was kidnapped and forced to become a child soldier for the ruling military junta. The horror he described is heartbreaking: “While we were on the front line, our officers ordered us to completely destroy the local people. They told us that even the children had to be killed if we saw them. I saw soldiers abducting young girls, dragging them from their houses and raping them. At the time, I felt that those girls were like my sisters.”

These stories and many more can be found in Nowhere to Be Home: Narratives from Survivors of Burma’s Military Regime, which goes on sale March 15. Lemere will also go on a book tour with a stop in D.C. at the 5th Street location of Busboys and Poets at 6:30 p.m. on March 24. But for Lemere, the stories do not end with the publication of the book; she remains in contact with many of the narrators she met along her journey. In the future, Lemere says, “My goal is to keep doing work that uses storytelling to illuminate pressing social issues.” So far, she’s off to a stellar start.