Islander ‘arrests’ herself in solidarity with Burma’s imprisoned leader

For more than a decade, Burmese leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest, making her one of the world’s most celebrated symbols in the struggle for human rights.

Next week, as the Burmese leader’s 65th birthday approaches, Islander Alix Clarke will raise awareness about her plight — and the plight of her small Southeast Asian country — by placing herself under 24 hours of house arrest.

While doing so, she’ll open up her Tramp Harbor home to those who want to learn more about Aung San Suu Kyi. She’ll have materials on hand, a video about the imprisoned leader and a petition urging the Obama administration to lead an international charge against Burma’s war crimes.

She and her husband Bob Blauvelt will also serve traditional Burmese food, including moh hin ghar, a soup considered the national dish of Burma, a sweet black tea called lahpetyay and a birthday cake.

“I’m hoping people will drop in throughout the day,” Clarke said. “Whoever we touch — it’ll be good.”

Clarke and Blauvelt lived and taught in Burma for four years, returning to Vashon in 2005. (Like many who support the Burmese liberation struggle, Clarke doesn’t call the country by its new, official name, Myanmar, imposed by the military government in 1989 in a process that’s been widely contested.)

Blauvelt taught physical education at the International School of Yangon. Clarke worked in the U.S. embassy, where she taught English to Burmese citizens, offering up books that she thought would be meaningful to people in a country ruled by a military junta — “1984,” “Animal Farm” and Nelson Mandela’s autobiography.

In retrospect, she said, she’s amazed the embassy was able to pull off such a feat. “I don’t know how we did it,” she said.

But discussing books about government oppression and jailed leaders such as Mandela also served to deepen Clarke’s commitment to Aung San Suu Kyi, an advocate of nonviolent resistance who has been calling for a return to democracy since 1988, when the military violently suppressed mass demonstrations.

Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party was popularly elected in 1990, meaning she would have assumed the office of prime minister, has been under house arrest off and on since 1989 — a total of 14 years over the past two decades. She lives in deplorable conditions, according to press accounts; her home lost its roof and electricity after a cyclone hit Burma in 2008.

“It’s really like a prison,” Clarke said.

During the drop-in visits that she’s hoping will take place, Clarke said she’ll also discuss the growing crisis around refugees from Burma, some of whom have flooded the Seattle area, where they receive little support and insufficient services. Currently, about 1,000 Burmese refugees live in the Seattle area; by year’s end, the number is expected to reach 3,000.

Refugee assistance lasts only eight months, she said, and is so minimal, it often doesn’t cover rent.

“Children are coming every week. .... I don’t understand how we can say, ‘Yes, we’ll take you,’ but not give them enough to live on,” she added.

Others around the world will be putting themselves under house arrest in June in an effort to draw awareness to the situation in Burma, said Clarke, who has done this once before. Clarke acknowledges that her house arrest is only symbolic — nothing compared to what Aung San Suu Kyi is experiencing. Still, she said, she hopes it will help.

“Aung San Suu Kyi has often said to the rest of the world, ‘Use your freedom to help us gain ours.’ I hear that calling, and that’s why I am focused on Burma now,” she said.

Alix Clarke’s open house during her “house arrest” will be held from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday, June 6, at 21524 Tramp Harbor Road. All are welcome.

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