This Sunshine Week, a time where news editors across the nation focus on transparency in government, a small restaurant owner in Stanton is reminding us all that way too many people live in total darkness.

Norberto Santana, Jr.

A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered the truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America.

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Places like Burma.

The South East Asian nation has been ruled by a brutal military junta since the early 1960s. 

Military leaders renamed the nation, Myanmar, in 1989.

Despite the military’s totalitarian grip on power, democracy activists in the late 1980s created momentum for more openness that eventually triggered a series of election wins, culminating with the election in 2015 of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, as State Counselor, the effective leader of the nation.

Yet her government was short-lived, with military leaders short-circuiting the civilian government last month, an action that has triggered fierce, loud and creative protests by students, activists and civilians. 

“It is not power that corrupts but fear,” she said in a famous 1990 speech. “Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”

Banny Hong, who immigrated to the United States in 1987 and now owns the Taste of Burma restaurant in Stanton, has been frantically calling on his local, state and federal officials to help those brave young students and activists standing up to a wild military junta unleashing an Orwellian nightmare on their own people. 

Hong standing inside his restaurant in Stanton. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

“I really admire these kids,” said Hong, who is 55, noting that many of the people standing up to the military are 15 to 20-year olds and many are being killed, rounded up at night in raids. 

Families like his are nervous and tense, trying to monitor what’s happening as the regime desperately tries to cut off the world from giving witness.  

“They are dying for freedom. They want democracy and justice,” Hong said.

“It’s important they know we are in solidarity. We can’t tolerate this anymore. We have to fight back.. We want to send the military a message. They are the terrorists,” he said. 

To see the most recent U.N. Human Rights Commission reports on Burma, go here. To see the most recent Human Rights Watch report on Burma, go here. And to see the latest U.S. State Department Human Rights report on Burma, go here.

According to media reports and human rights monitors, this last week, military leaders went straight after protestors directly in the bloodiest confrontations since they took power with dozens of protesters gunned down by security forces with reports of others being picked up in the middle of the night.

On March 14th, the military junta imposed martial law. They also seem to have shut down internet access. 

Late Friday, the BBC reported that their reporter, Aung Thura, who is Burmese, was taken away by unidentified men in the Burmese capital of Naypyidaw. They are calling on the authorities to help locate him and confirm he is safe. 

The same military regime jailed two Reuters reporters for 500 days, for the crime of reporting on a mass campaign of ethnic cleansing of muslim minorities, until their release in 2017. 

Human rights activists monitoring the situation note that it’s super important these people on the ground know they are not alone and that the military leaders responsible for these atrocities know they also are not acting without the world watching. 

People like Hong, Stanton Mayor David Shawver and a host of other elected and civic leaders can make a big difference by raising their voices and heightening awareness around the exact names of the military leaders who are responsible for this kind of closed approach to governing and political power.

“I am honored to be able to help the people of Myanmar inform Orange County about the “Killing fields of Burma,” said Shawver, a long time Republican elected official in Stanton. 

“It is the responsibility of local elected officials to support all of the diverse communities of their towns,” Shawver said. “We not only need to show that we care about the human rights (situation) but the families here in California that are affected by these atrocities.”

“It’s devastating,” said Hong, who is still processing deeply disturbing images and reports from his family and friends abroad. 

“Every day people are getting killed,” Hong said. “You don’t know when they are coming to your house.”

“We are all scared,” he said.

But they are also standing up.

“We can’t stand this,” Hong said. 

“We need to send a message to the military government. They are killing. These are crimes against humanity.”

As scary as it is to confront raw power, Hong said he feels comforted and empowered by the support of so many elected officials, expecting a strong showing at today’s city hall observance.

Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a House resolution HRes 134, which condemned the coup and HR 1122, legislation which sets up a framework for a State Department report on the coup as well as plans to seek consequences for the perpetrators. 

The stakes are high.

“This is life and death,” Hong warns. 

Reflecting on Sunshine Week, Hong notes that ideas about government openness and transparency shouldn’t be limited to just inside U.S. borders. 

“It’s about freedom. Justice.

It’s about democracy. It’s about caring about humanity. And freedom.

We all believe in the same principles.

It doesn’t matter the county, Black or white…it’s about justice. Humanity.

About not being afraid to speak up.”

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