Jan 27 2012 by Tina Kemp, Lennox Herald (main ed)
FIFTEEN years ago a small group gathered in Bonhill believing they could help change the world.
Some said they were wasting their time. But their faith, hard work and commitment has proved the sceptics wrong.
Members of Bonhill Church Amnesty International Team recently celebrated the release of another prisoner of conscience for whom they have campaigned over the last two years.
Min Ko Naing, 50, a veteran pro-democracy movement leader in Burma, was jailed in 2008 for 65 years for his role in the major anti-government protests of the previous autumn.
The Bonhill group mounted a campaign of letter-writing to the Burmese government – and were delighted to learn that their efforts, together with those of Amnesty members all over the world, had been successful.
Min Ko Naing is the latest of around half a dozen prisoners of conscience the group has successfully campaigned to release.
That’s an achievement even founder member Billy Scobie couldn’t have imagined.
He said: “I joined Amnesty 20 years ago and got it into my head that this was something churches might be interested in. Ian Miller, the minister at Bonhill Church, offered to try and set something up.
“We arranged a meeting and Ian said ‘remember we might be the only ones who turn up’.”
Seven people came along – enough to get the group going, and the group first helped secure the freedom of Tibetan nun Ngawang Sangdrol in 2002. Since then every cause championed has seen a sentence overturned and a life changed.
Billy said: “It’s amazing that every prisoner we have campaigned for has been released.”
The group sends postcards and writes letters to government officials in the country where the prisoner of conscience is held. Members have staged more colourful stunts over the years including delivering yellow roses to the Chinese Consulate in Edinburgh to highlight the plight of Ngawang Sangdrol.
They also arranged for Dumbarton FC to play a match in the name of Ma Khin Khin Leh, another Burmese prisoner whose release they helped secure.
During the latest campaign, the group encouraged representatives of the Westminster and Holyrood parliaments to send cards to Burmese officials, as well as posting letters from church members.
Billy said the group’s commitment hinged on the belief that even their small contribution does make a difference.
Not everyone has always agreed though. Billy explained: “When we met to discuss our campaign around Ma Khin Khin Leh, an elderly couple appeared. We thought they’d come to join the group but they said they were there simply to tell us we were completely wasting our time.
“They had lived and worked under the Burmese regime for 10 years and said we had no idea what it was like. Even Amnesty told us it was one of the nastiest regimes they dealt with and not to be discouraged if nothing happened. But she was released.
“It’s such a joyful experience to get news of a release. Then you remember you are only a tiny part of a bigger international campaign.”
Minister Ian, who is part of the group, paid tribute to Billy for instigating it all those years ago. He said: “It has been a window opening to some of the things that go on in the world and the reasons for which people find themselves unjustly incarcerated. We see it on the news but to be more involved brings it that bit closer.”