I’ve heard Jennifer Quigley speak twice at STAND conferences, and after one session at STAND Camp 2010 that she held for students concerning an update on Burma, I had the pleasure of lagging behind and talking to her directly with a small group of interested students. Jennifer is very personable and she is willing to discuss current events in Burma with anyone from the most experienced policy wonk to students who she notes have asked her, “What’s a Burma?” I admire her passion and hard work as an activist, and her advice brings perspective and offers motivation on a realistic level.
Name: Jennifer Quigley
Job: Advocacy Director for the U.S. Campaign for Burma
Alma Mater: George Washington University
City: Washington, DC
What’s your story? What led you to STAND up for Burma?
Ten years ago when I was in college, I learned about the atrocities taking place in Burma when a Burmese dissident came and spoke at my university. He asked us to organize a conference on Burma and we did. I became immersed in all things Burma and was hooked by the determination and hope the people had despite the level of adversity facing them – a nonviolent movement for freedom, democracy and human rights up against one of the world’s largest armies and even though they had an iconic leader in Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, most of the world didn’t know anything about the situation in Burma. The most common response I received in the US when talking about Burma was ‘What’s a Burma?’
I knew what was happening, I couldn’t stand by and do nothing, I had to STAND with the people of Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi has a famous quote: “Please use your liberty to promote ours.” I took her message to heart. I was a Burma activist here in the US for a number of years then during graduate school, I had the opportunity to go and volunteer for the Women’s League of Burma on the Thai-Burma border. It was honor to work for women from Burma, who risk their own lives to help their fellow sisters in Burma suffering some of the most incomprehensible brutalities, including women who were taken by the Burmese army to work as forced porters during the day and gang raped by the soldiers at night.
The women are fearless. Their courage inspired me to put Aung San Suu Kyi’s words into action back here in the US. I’ve been working at the US Campaign for Burma for the past three and half years, raising awareness about the situation in Burma, getting the US government to increase sanctions against Burma’s military junta, increasing humanitarian aid to internally displaced people in Eastern Burma, and fighting for justice for the survivors and victims of the regime’s atrocities.
What makes the situation in Burma personal for you?
I have to say Burma has become personal to me because of the impact my colleagues from Burma have had on my life. Their hope in the face of adversity, their courage in the face of fear, and their commitment to doing everything they can to help their country and people is admirable.
What motivates you daily, especially when busy and overwhelmed?
My worst day in Washington, DC will never compare to what people in Burma confront every day.
What are some challenges have you faced in your role as an activist, and how have you learned from your work in human rights?
One of the hardest things I face is the abstract nature of advocacy work. You don’t see results right away, our work takes months and years to see results. Advocacy work is like getting to the heart of eradicating a disease. Treating symptoms would be easier and deliver quicker results but they’ll keep coming back unless you work to eradicate the main cause of the symptoms.
What can we students do to help out with the situation in Burma?
There are three things I consider as key roles for students. The first is raising awareness. It’s sad but true that I still get people asking ‘What’s a Burma?’ One of the greatest weapons, Burma’s dictator has is his control over information. If people don’t know about a situation, they can’t do anything to help. We have the power to take that weapon away from Burma’s dictator and it starts with our freedom of speech.
The second is putting into practice our power as constituents in a democracy. You can lobby your elected representatives to sanction Burma’s generals’ bank accounts, provide humanitarian assistance to those half a million IDPs, and use our role in the United Nations, to not only shine a spotlight on the crimes against humanity happening in Burma, but to fight for the justice Burma’s people rightly deserve. Without students and community members calling their elected representatives’ attention to the issue, it could be lost in the shuffle. I’ve seen one voicemail from a constituent be enough to get their Senator to support a bill and I’ve seen it take 100 phone calls. Without any advocacy, there wouldn’t be support.
The third is volunteering. We do get many requests from groups on the Thai-Burma border looking for volunteers to come and work for them for a few months to a year. You could do what I did and spend time learning about the situation (health, human rights, politics) and contribute to their crucial work.
What are some tips you have for young activists?
Don’t be discouraged, recognize there are so many things for you to do to help. Some things are small and may seem insignificant but they are not. Every little thing you can do helps. This all started for me when one Burmese dissident came and gave a speech at my university. He couldn’t foresee the impact it would have but he knew he needed to speak out.
How do you like your coffee? (or do you prefer tea?)
I don’t like to drink coffee or tea but I like to eat tea. There is a famous Burmese salad made with pickled tea leaves (called Lipeto)– it sounds strange but it’s delicious.
How many languages do you know?
I’m terrible with languages. I’m not fluent in anything other than English. Good to know I can still do this work without being a linguist.