Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Talking to Washington

Burma Police Patrol- photo from National Geographic Article

Politics has never been something I was into. The closest I've come was going into downtown Chicago on the night President Obama was elected. We were only a few blocks away from his post-election party. My political thinking: Well, after the election, I did register to vote in TN, but now I don't live there anymore. The political changes I would like to see are political changes in the Dominican Republic, not in the U.S.

In my new home of Madison, WI, politics are important to almost everyone. Everyone has a bumper sticker that says "Recall Walker" because they are all so pissed at him for what happened earlier this year. I have moved to the land of radicals, liberals, progressives, activists, nudists, strikers, people who throw things at the capitol building when they're angry. I think they may be rubbing off on me.

In the past few days, I have been on a little political journey of my own thanks to my friend Jill Ridderbos, a Wheaton grad working for the summer in Washington with the U.S. Campaign for Burma. I received an email from her last week entitled, "Will Wisconsin Stand for Burma?" and I dreaded opening it because I knew I was probably going to be asked to do something. Her email told me about the U.S. Campaign for Burma (USCB) and the severe human rights violations inflicted on Burmese citizens by their government. The email asked me to call up my senators and get them to co-sponsor a resolution that imposes sanctions on the Burmese government.

I read over all the instructions and tried to pronounce the name "Aung San Suu Kyi," which I still can't really do. I let it all sit for a day. Then, it was time to email Jill back and tell her that I was sorry and I couldn't do it. I didn't feel like calling any senators. I knew this wouldn't be a good enough reason for Jill, and she would be disappointed. So, I instead decided to call the senators.

It was nerve racking! The first call, I got transfered to the staffer's phone and his voicemail picked up. I was terrified. I left a horribly garbled message with stuttering and stammering and then, on top of all this, I left my 901-area code number to call back, which is still my cell phone number. Anyone from Wisconsin would know that 901 isn't a Wisconsin area code. They will think I'm a fraud! Thus ended call one.

Call two went a lot smoother. I just read exactly what the website said for me to say, and I left my 608 Wisconsin area code number.

The next day, much to my surprise, I got a call back from the second office. He told me that he was very familiar with the bill and that he thought Senator Johnson would co-sign it, but he couldn't say for sure because he still needed to talk to him about it. Sweet! One down. I emailed in my results to the USCB.

The day after that, I got a call back from the other office, telling me that Senator Kohl would for sure sponsor the bill. Great news. Someone at USCB emailed and said I should try calling the other office again to make sure they were going to sponsor it or get any updates because the deadline was the next day, so I called and left a message. The secretary asked, "Can I tell him who's calling?" And I said, "Yes, it's Sarah Mathias from Madison. I'm calling about a bill I spoke with him about yesterday." He still didn't pick up the phone, but I left another message.

He called me back today, and told me that Senator Johnson would for sure co-sign. Both Wisconsin senators are now onboard, and I got to watch the debates in the House on CSPAN right after I found that out.

So what is all this about? Two things: Burma, and what I learned about democracy.

Second thing, democracy. I had no idea that I could call up senators' offices and say, "Hi, my name is Sarah from Madison, WI, and I'm calling about Senate Joint Resolution 17-- the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act..." I had no idea they were so accessible. Jill said that she didn't either until she moved to Washington. She said that they are in their offices there, and if you go visit them, they have to see you. They are there because of the people. Those staffers had to call me back, and that is wild to me. Who knew? Does anyone know about this?

Also, apparently my calls made an impact. Jill told me that the advocacy director at USCB said about me yesterday, "One of Jill's friends yesterday got a senator who hadn't co-sponsored in four years to sign back on, the power of one!" Now this is cool! I had no idea that those painful and exciting phone calls would accomplish anything at all. Maybe now I will call more.

First thing, Burma. The bill USCB is trying to get passed is called the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act. This act imposes sanctions on the Burmese government with the aim of preventing resources like guns from getting into the hands of the regime in power. The regime attacks and destroys ethnic communities. The army uses rape as a weapon of war. The government refuses to release over 2,000 political prisoners. No one really knows the extent of the problems in Burma or how many people are affected in part because of all the internally displaced people hiding in the jungle. There's no way to keep track of numbers. Jill is passionate about these issues because she has spent time in neighboring Thailand and has seen it all with her own eyes.

Fusion of the two. People rave about the virtues of democracy and the need for democracy in other countries, but I haven't really understood its significance until now, or the significance of not having it. "Democracy" hasn't invaded my life, but I am free at any moment to invade its life (and get a word to the people whose job it is to represent me). That's the beauty of it-- and something that Burmese citizens would love to have--for land mines to stop permanently altering their lives, for women to live without the fear of being raped. Maybe democracy and peace don't always go hand in hand so neatly like this. Maybe there isn't always a linkage between living in a democratic country and living without fear of sudden destruction. I'm not trying to tout democracy as the only way, but I think the leaders of a country should take care of their people. This is a biblical principle. The king is supposed to be just. Burma certainly doesn't have that.

If someone living in Burma could do what I did this week, call up their senators' offices and say, "Hello, my name is X, and you know, it would be really nice if you could stop putting land mines around my rice field. Thank you," that would be a great day. I think that's part of what the sanctions do. It's like we're all calling up the Burmese government and asking them to stop.

Here are some resources to learn more about Burma:

U.S. Campaign for Burma Homepage and Blog

General News Source on the Region of Burma and Southeast Asia

National Geographic Article about Burma

Photo Journal of Burmese Prosthetics Clinic

Watch CSPAN tonight to see them debate the bill!


  1. this is just great. So good. You are awesome :) I love that you called your new senators. Maybe I'll call mine up just to introduce myself and let them know I'll be getting more involved because some Wisconsin senators listened to my friend when she called them :) With great power comes great responsibility!

  2. Feeling a good deal of irony as I am reading this post: Today I was in Congressman Cohen's office lobbying to have legislative changes made to Federal legislation concerning HUB Zones. I will not meet the Congressman until After the budget debate ends (Probably August 8th), but I met with two of his staff workers -- they were VERY knowledgeable, agreed to help New Tech and I walked out on a cloud thinking, "I really like this stuff".

    So KNOW that I am proud of you and glad you made your first political impact 30 years earlier in life than me!