By Libby Ellis
Photo by Dan Dry

While cutting photographs from a magazine for a collage, 13-year-old Cristina Moon, AB’05, stumbled upon an article about the political situation in Burma. That story inspired her future work, eventually taking her across the world on a life-changing journey.

Moon took notice of the southeastern Asian nation long before the rest of the world. This past spring, a devastating cyclone wiped out thousands of villages in the country now known as Myanmar, an impoverished country under a military junta that has been accused of the torture and sexual assault of its citizens.

Given the circumstances, it would be easy to give up hope. But Moon’s idealism has stayed with her since her first introduction to Burma as a teen-ager, through her time at the University as an international relations student, and into her professional career.

Chicago Experience

At Chicago, Moon discovered like-minded people looking to make a difference in the world. She teamed up with Amnesty International for a film festival and was invited to dinner with the vice chair of the Burmese student unions. “As an advocate, I felt I should have personal experience,” Moon says.

She completed a summer internship funded by the University of Chicago Human Rights Program. The internship partnered Moon with the Burma Lawyers Council. When she returned to campus, she focused on her personal experiences to inspire others to get involved. “I met young men and women from the ethnic minority villages who shared personal stories of the military coming in and holding guns to mothers’ heads. I met 19-year-old girls who held my hand because they were so excited I was there. They said, ’Please don’t forget about us. You being here shows that the world cares—we need your help.’

“That was life changing. When I got back to campus, I wanted to organize,” Moon says.

After a lot of research and some significant pestering, Moon organized the first student-led trip that also took faculty to the Thai/Burma border. The group met with organizations providing food aid and construction materials to internally displaced people in Burma, visited a refugee camp, met with organizations training young people, and talked with backpacking humanitarian aid workers and former political prisoners.

Post-Graduate Advocacy

After graduation, Moon accepted a full-time position with the U.S. Campaign for Burma, and she expanded the trips to include students from multiple campuses, including Chicago.

Today, she sees a landscape ripe for change. She started an organization, 8/8/08 for Burma—dually named for the start date of the 2008 Olympic Games and in remembrance of 8/8/88, the date of one of the biggest democratic protests in Burmese history, when the military killed 4,000 protesters and civilians.

Leveraging the Olympics for Democratic Change

Over the past nine months, Moon’s organization has encouraged China, the largest ally and investor in Burma, to use its unparalleled influence with Burma’s military dictators to promote genuine democratic change in the country. Although many think China will continue to face questions about its human rights practices, Moon’s organization is taking the modern, global image that China is projecting and challenging the country to take a stand. The history of the Olympics as a celebration of brotherhood and peace provides the perfect platform for the debate.

Despite the size of the task and the obstacles the country faces, Moon is optimistic. “My vision of a free Burma has a lot to do with the potential for humanity and the whole world. If we fail Burma, we have really screwed up. The condition is ripe for us to be creative and do something to build a positive model for what it means to be human beings.”

By Libby Ellis