COLUMBIA — A typical lunch hour in a high school cafeteria might be spent hashing over the day’s gossip or speculating about who will win the next football game, but eight Hickman High School students have spent their lunch hours this week collecting signatures petitioning against the Myanmar government’s suppression of peaceful demonstration by thousands of Buddhist monks.
It’s a perspective they want the world to hear — even if their voice is small. They are joined by students at schools across the country, particularly at colleges and universities.
“I think it’s really important for our younger generation to know they can make a statement,” said Hickman senior Angela Eyraud.
The students are members of Amnesty International, which works to prevent government suppression of human rights. The students have collected signatures on petitions for the Chinese and U.S. governments. As of Thursday, the students had collected about 200 signatures.
Deep-rooted tensions in the southeast Asian nation emerged most recently when tens of thousands of Buddhist monks marched peacefully against the military government, drawing citizens who hold the monks in high esteem. The government imposed overnight curfews, Internet cafes were closed to prevent communication with the world, monasteries were raided and monks were beaten and arrested.
“We wanted to give students the opportunity to voice their opposition to this great human rights injustice,” said English teacher George Frissell, the faculty advisor for Hickman’s Amnesty International chapter.
Frissell said the chapter will send a petition to the Chinese government because it is a key trader with Myanmar, formerly Burma, and because the summer 2008 Olympics will be in Beijing.
“China is becoming increasingly aware of (its) world image and wants to project a positive image to the world as the Olympics approach,” Frissell said.
Students said they hope that the petitions will increase awareness of what is going on in Myanmar.
“We want to wake their government up to the fact that the world is paying attention to what’s going on,” said Hickman senior Saxon Brown. “This is a first step to peace.”
Brown expressed surprise at the diversity of students who signed the petition, noting that people she didn’t think were politically minded were some of the first to sign. This week she has taken her turn at a table next to a board of facts about the Myanmar conflict and a television re-airing a piece done by ABC News.
Eyraud said the biggest thing people can do at this point is to be aware of what is going on, even if it’s a world away.
“I think a violation of basic human rights should effect everyone,” Eyraud said. “Though it may sound naive, there just needs to be more peace.”
Hickman’s Amnesty International chapter started in 1987.
“Part of our attitude is that when we’re silent, it’s as if we consent or agree with what’s happening in the world,” Frissell said. “By speaking out against what’s happening in Burma, we’re not being complicit with what’s going on.”
Although one signature might not mean much, Brown said, half the battle is attempting to fight injustice.
“I think the fact that we tried is something,” Brown said. “It’s better to have tried and failed than to not try at all.”