On his way out of Starbucks in Pioneer Courthouse Square, 34-year-old Athein notices a stack of New York Times newspapers by the door.
As has been the case recently, his home country of Myanmar is featured prominently on the front page. But the news isn't good: It's the latest about the military government crackdown on hundreds of thousands of protesters, including Buddhist monks, demonstrating back home 7,500 miles from Portland.
"This is just like 1988," Athein says somberly, in a thick accent. "It's a nightmare."
In July, before the current demonstrations in Myanmar, Athein started a Portland chapter of the worldwide group 88 Generation Students to draw attention here to the atrocities in his homeland of 49 million people.
The group takes its name from the last major uprising, in 1988, in which thousands of protesters were massacred. (In 1989, the military government changed Burma's official name to Myanmar.)
Once or twice a week since July, Athein and some of the other 75 chapter members gather at Pioneer Square. Wearing striking white T-shirts and red headbands, they carry signs reading, "Stop Terrorist Government in Burma," and "Free Burma."
They also display devastating pictures of political prisoners who have been tortured or killed and of their country's poverty. They contrast those images with pictures of the lavish palaces where government leaders live.
Christian Boyd, 34, is the local group's only non-Burmese member. Boyd says some people are taken aback by the graphic photos, but "once people understand the situation, they're usually glad that there's someone doing something about it."
This spring, Athein plans to walk from Portland to Washington, D.C.—over 2,800 miles—to collect signatures and draw attention to the group's goals. Those include highlighting human-rights abuses, from forced and child labor to brutal censorship.
Athein, who works a manufacturing job in Tualatin and lives near Southeast 82nd Avenue with his wife and three daughters, came to Portland six years ago from Thailand, where he had lived for years as a political refugee. All but the family's American-born youngest daughter, who's a U.S. citizen, still have "refugee" status. Before fleeing to Thailand, Athein had fought in the jungles of eastern Burma with the All Burma Student Democratic Front, an opposition group formed after the 1988 uprising. He is among an estimated 500 Burmese living in Portland. Even here, however, he does not always feel free from the Burmese government.
"There are [Burmese] people here who are related to the military government," he says. "When they come around, we put our signs away."
While fighting with the ABSDF, Athein took his current, single name, which he still uses to hide his identity and protect the safety of his two sisters who remain in Myanmar. He hasn't heard from them in months—the government is notorious for cutting off lines of communication, and has effectively shut down all Internet access. But he remains optimistic about his country's future.
"For our generation, one day they will have their freedom," he says. "We need to do demonstrations until this happens."
Members of the Portland chapter of 88 Generation Students lead demonstrations in downtown Portland last week.
All photos by Jan van Raay.
In 1990, the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory in Myanmar's first democratic election in 30 years. The regime nullified the results and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she's been for 12 of the past 18 years. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.