The Defenders

Ka Hsaw Wa

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“A lot of my former classmates now have their Ph.D.’s in the United States. They are educated and come here with money. I think to myself, ‘What am I doing?’ I don’t gain anything for myself and I can’t seem to do anything to lessen the suffering of the villagers. I see the situation worsening and I blame myself for not being able to do enough. At the same time, I can’t quit. If I turn my back and walk away, there would be no one to address the issue.”

Little is known about the childhood of Ka Hsaw Wa. He was born in 1970 in Burma, a nation in SoutheastAsia also known as Myanmar. Ka Hsaw Ha is not his birth name, which he keeps secret to protect his family. During the 1970s, Burma was ruled by a military junta, meaning the military had overthrown the previous government and seized power. This junta often used violence to stop protests against the government, violating the human rights of citizens to free expression and peaceful assembly.

Ka Hsaw Wa himself was a victim of this violence. In 1988, after leading student political protests against the government, Ka Hsaw Wa was arrested and tortured for three days by the Burmese military. This experience did not keep him from participating in the 8888 Nationwide Popular Pro-Democracy Protests, which is named after the largest demonstration that took place on August 8, 1988, or 8/8/88. Although the protests seemed successful at first, the military suddenly and violently cracked down one month later, ordering its soldiers to shoot protesters on sight.

Ka Hsaw Wa organized groups to protest this new violence and promote democracy. While demonstrating in Rangoon, one of his friends was shot and died in his arms; another friend was gravely wounded. Ka Hsaw Wa took his wounded friend to the hospital and fled into the jungle. While hiding, he made two important decisions. The first was to document the horrible human rights abuses taking place in Burma, which the new military government called Myanmar. The second was to change his name and cut ties to his family so that he could do his work without fear of government retaliation. Ka Hsaw Wa is Burmese for “White Elephant.” White elephants are sacred animals to many cultures in Southeast Asia. To the Karen people of Burma (Ka Hsaw Wa’s ethnic nationality), white elephants are a symbol of righteous strength.

Ka Hsaw Wa has spent the last 30 years recording stories, taking pictures of human rights violations and educating people on the connection between the environment and human rights. As part of that work, he discovered that the American oil company Unocal and the French oil company Total were working with the military government to build a pipeline through Burma. The military government used forced labor, torture, and killings to build this pipeline, and the oil companies ignored these human rights violations. Ka Hsaw Wa and two American lawyers, Katie Redford and Tyler Giannini, formed EarthRights International to organize the collected testimonies and bring legal action against the oil companies, leading to a court case against Unocal, which was settled in 2005.

Ka Hsaw Wa is still active in the fight to promote democracy, protect the environment and stop government violence in Burma and around the world. His goal is simple: he wants all people to be treated like human beings.

Why does revealing the truth matter?

Although villains in movies are usually portrayed as inherently “evil” people who do terrible things for the sake of being evil, the difficult truth is that the people involved with some of the worst human rights violations often think that they are doing the right thing. One cause of this misunderstanding is limited information. When they don’t consider the larger picture, people often don’t realize the harm they’re doing.

For example, in the late 1980s, people who wanted affordable, high-quality athletic equipment often bought Nike products. However, these customers were unaware that their shoes were hand-stitched in shops where people were forced to work in unsafe conditions for almost no pay. In 1991, an activist named Jeff Ballinger published a report about conditions in these shops in Indonesia, exposing the human rights violations occurring there.

As a result, people stopped buying Nike products and, in 1998, Nike took active steps to improve the working conditions in their factories overseas. Today, Nike is a leader in protecting the human rights of international workers, showing that as Jeff Ballinger did, speaking truth to power can improve the lives of others.

The best protection human rights abusers have is ignorance, which can lead to regular people supporting and encouraging the abusers. By actively researching potential human rights abuses by the companies from which we buy goods and the public officials who protect us, we can use the truth and informed action to protect human rights.

Want to join the fight for truth?

  • Read about organizations like the Center for Constitutional Rights and the work they are doing to fight corporate human rights abuses.
  • Read about steps you can take to end slavery with your purchasing decisions here.
  • Read about protests surrounding the Dakota Pipeline, an oil pipeline in the United States that threatened sacred native lands and the environment, here.

Look for cases of discrimination or bullying in your school. Keep a detailed record of all the instances you see, and then give a copy to a teacher or the principal.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Mission Statement

Led by human rights activist and lawyer Kerry Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights has advocated for a more just and peaceful world since 1968. We work alongside local activists to ensure lasting positive change in governments and corporations. Whether in the United States or abroad, our programs have pursued justice through strategic litigation on key human rights issues, educated millions of children in human rights advocacy and fostered a social good approach to business and investment.