Saturday, November 8, 2008

Underwear from around the world is taking a stand against the Burmese military junta

The panty drop-box in the library
By Kelly O'Connor

“You take these to Rangoon… and you get shot,” explains Mika Lévesque, holding a pair of panties with a flower-shaped sticker of the Burmese junta pasted on the bum. As the founder of the Panties for Peace campaign in Canada and one of Canada’s foremost experts on Burma, she knows what she is talking about.

Lévesque, an international lawyer and Rights and Democracy's Asia specialist, recently spoke on campus, concluding the Panties for Peace campaign coordinated by Mount Allison’s Rights and Democracy delegation.

Although the campaign has officially ended on campus, Panties for Peace will continue until the military junta falls and a democratic regime is put in its place.

Lévesque highlighted that Burma has been gripped by a brutal and oppressive military regime since 1962. Despite having democratically elected a government in 1990, the military arrested many MPs and did not allow this new government to take over, with the excuse that the constitution had not been written yet. This elected government has continued on in exile and acts today as an important advocate for the rights of the Burmese people, despite lacking any political clout in the country.

Meanwhile, the military state sanctions rape as a weapon of war in its campaign against the various ethnic minorities of Burma; it has one of the highest incidences of child soldiers in the world, and regularly conscripts citizens into forced labour projects for anywhere from a few days to a few years.

Still, the same generals who rule Burma are also very superstitious, and thus the Panties for Peace campaign was born. Launched on October 16, 2007 by the Thailand-based organization Lanna Action for Burma (LAB), Panties for Peace is an attempt to turn a cultural taboo into a force for social change. It is a widely-held belief in Burmese society that any clothes worn under a woman’s waist are “dirty,” and that, if touched by men, cause them to lose their manliness.

“Even with laundry, the two are separated,” explained Lévesque.

LAB activists have even thrown panties over Burmese embassy walls and filmed the embassy staff having to pick up these dangerous undergarments.

The campaign allows these women who face incredibly daunting odds to fight for their freedom on their own terms, and, perhaps more importantly, to laugh while doing it.

“Panties for Peace is very therapeutic,” said Lévesque.

The campaign was officially launched in Montréal in May 2008 by Lévesque and the Rights and Democracy Network. The reaction in Québec has been particularly strong, while University of Victoria, Laval, UQAM and universities across the country are planning to hold campaigns on their own campuses.

“The first thing is to educate the Canadian public,” explained Lévesque. This is so that citizens can effectively lobby the government to take action against the atrocities in Burma. The main reason the Canadian government has been so slow in the past to take a strong stand, Lévesque said, was because they thought the Canadian public didn’t care.

The campaign was launched at Mt. A on October 27 and ran until November 3. With trees wrapped in Panties for Peace banners, and a paper panty-covered drop box in the library, the group was able to collect about 270 pairs of panties and thirteen boxers (both real and paper) as well as 126 signatures on a petition calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners in Burma.

Mt. A's collected panties and petition will be sent to the Burmese embassy in Ottawa; the embassy has already been so overwhelmed by panties, however, that they are simply sending packages back. To get around this challenge, the campus delegation plans to put the return address as the Chinese embassy (staunch military partners with the Burmese junta) or journalists who may be interested in the cause.

While Panties for Peace is currently its main focus, LAB continues with its attention grabbing work in other subtle ways. At a recent “Unhappy Bad-Day” organized to mark Burmese leader Than Shwe’s birthday, they made a panty-shaped cake with Shwe’s face on it. They then fed it to their dog.

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