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Walk For Freedom
Motorists on I-84 this week may have noticed a lone figure tramping along the side of the road, carrying two billowing flags.
BRAVING THE ELEMENTS: On a windy and wet Friday afternoon, Zaw Min Htwe treks along Interstate 84 just southeast of La Grande, heading for the mouth of Ladd Canyon. He and Athein trade off walking and driving a support vehicle. - The Observer/ETHAN SCHOWALTER-HAY
His name is Zaw Min Htwe. He’s 27 years old, of Burmese descent, and is walking from Portland to New York City.
The cause? Publicizing the struggle for human rights in his home country.
“Every day we cannot go freely where we want to go,” Htwe explains (in perhaps the first interview conducted at the chain-up zone east of La Grande).
He’s been in the United States for about four years, he says; he left Burma as a child. But the daily struggles in the Southeast Asian country, officially called the Union of Myanmar, continue to occupy his energies.
Htwe is traveling on the “Walk For Freedom” with another activist, Athein, also forced from his country by the political situation; most of his family was killed when Burmese soldiers opened fire on a peaceful protest in 1988.
According to the Walk For Freedom website, Athein believes his sister survived, although he’s not had contact with her since.
The country’s military government made headlines in 2007 for a violent crackdown on protests staged by Buddhist monks. Burma has been ruled by juntas since 1962, when Gen. Ne Win led a successful coup.
Athein and Htwe, who first met in Portland, set off on March 1. They take shifts trekking on the highway shoulder and driving a car loaded with supplies. Htwe says they sleep in motels whenever there are towns, seeking out rest areas and other shelter in more lonesome reaches.
“There was snow,” he acknowledges of the northern Blue Mountains behind him. “And more snow today.”
The breeze whips the two flags he hefts — one American, the other representing the Burmese democracy movement.
“I like the U.S.,” Htwe says, “because there is freedom, democracy and human rights.”
He says he wants the same for Burma.
“We don’t have freedom of speech, writing, printing — we don’t have it,” he notes. “We don’t have equality.”
Athein and Htwe hope to reach New York City by Aug. 8, the start of the Beijing Olympics and the anniversary of the 1988 protests. They will deliver a petition, calling for government reform and the release of political prisoners, to the United Nations office.
Htwe says the trek has been difficult, but he and Athein are willing to make physical sacrifices for justice in their homeland.
“We have pain in our whole body, but we don’t care,” he asserts.
Ahead, there’s Ladd Canyon, the Powder River Valley, the barren mountains of the Burnt River country. And, eventually, their destination.
To find out more about the trek, or to sign the petition, visit the Walk For Freedom website at www.88portland.wordpress.com .