Monday, October 29, 2007
BURMA'S FREEDOM LOVERS: LIVING FOR DEMOCRACY
hile the world's attention fades, caught by the sparkle of shiny new things like baseball championships and a US presidential race still more than a year away, Burma's bruised and beaten freedom lovers remain as committed as ever to carry their revolution forward.
The Washington Post's Jill Drew sends another dispatch from the Thai border town of Mae Sot, where she finds that revolutionary fervor, rather than despair is the dominant mood where a number of Burmese dissidents have regrouped, preparing for their return to continue the struggle for freedom in their country.
"We are living for democracy and human rights, not for ourselves," said Hlaing Moe Than, 37, as he sat on the tile floor of an empty apartment where he lives here, a single fluorescent bulb buzzing over his head.Burmese refugees are thought to comprise about 70% of Mae Sot's population. The Thai government estimates approximately 3 million Burmese have taken up residence in Thailand over the years. The true figure is almost certainly more, since many refugees don't register with the government or NGO agencies, and simply melt into the population.
Drew met a woman who arrived in Mae Sot on Oct. 21. She had marched with the students, and had felt hopeful to see so many young people joining the protests even after the violent crackdown began. Her own teenage daughter had not been involved but was busy with her school exams, so she felt she would be safe.
When police could not find the woman after days of searching, they went to her house at 1 a.m. on Oct. 10 and arrested her daughter, she said. The woman, who had severed contact with her family to protect them and had been staying in different houses every night, learned of the arrest the following afternoon from another opposition member. She does not know where her daughter is.Her first goal is to find out what happened to her daughter. Her second goal, she says, is to "continue the movement."
She wept as she told the story. "I thought she would be fine," she said.
See also the analysis of BBC's Fergal Keane in the Spectator. He meets a young refugee family in Mae Sot whose story seems to be the story of Burma itself. He writes that although the system of internal repression is such that "it would do credit to the excesses of Stalin," the best hope for change is with the younger army officers who must know that military rule is not sustainable. He ends his analysis with an optimistic tone.
But if 20 years of reporting the world’s conflict zones has taught me anything it is that the desire for freedom — in Burma or anywhere else — is never ever extinguished. Now, you may choose to regard that statement as naive twaddle. But I will bet you anything that history proves me right in Burma.Meanwhile inside the State of Fear, the military government stepped up its rhetoric against the United States yesterday, accusing it of attempting to set up a puppet government by inciting the popular demonstrations.
"Recent protests in the country were created by the loudmouthed bully, using the exiled dissidents and traitors together with communists, internal and external anti-government destructionists," said a commentary Sunday in the Myanmar-language Myanma Ahlin daily.That's right -- George Bush is teaming up with communists again. The current junta is an outgrowth of the previous Ne Win dictatorship (1962-88), which was famously known as the "Burmese Way to Socialism." I wonder what the Chinese communist ruling elite would think of Myanmar Ahlin, grouping "traitors" and "destructionists" with communists -- while the Chinese client state's own ruling elite runs the Burmese economy in time-honoured communist command style.
The author, who called himself Maung Pwint Lin — roughly meaning Mr. Frankly Speaking — said the U.S. had tried to revive the mass uprisings of 1988 in Myanmar in connivance with "exiled dissidents and internal axe-handles" in order to install a puppet government.Ah yes Mr. Frankly, the "axe-handles." This term has been used for decades by this junta, and across the country there are billboard signs saying, "Those who rely on America are axe-handles." The rationale seems to be this: the axe-heads (foreigners) which try to chop down the great tree of the Burmese state, would be useless without the axe-handles made from local wood. Or something like that.
The newspaper commentary said the majority of people in Myanmar opposed the protests, but some gullible and stupid people constituting a small minority came out on the streets, instigated by foreign broadcasters such as the BBC and the U.S.-government funded Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.And so the vilification of BBC, VOA and RFA continues nightly on Myanmar state television, with the slogans I noted here a month ago still constituting the segues between each piece of propaganda. "RFA, VOA and BBC saboteurs, watch your step!" and "The public be warned of killers in the airwaves - RFA, VOA and BBC."
Journalist Choe Sang-Hun has moved from Rangoon up to Mandalay, where he meets the famous Moustache Brothers -- or at least the remaining brothers who haven't been taken to the concentration camp -- and offers some more examples of why U Par Par Lay (the Moustache who is "up the river, in the clink," in the words of Moustache #2) possesses a wit deemed dangerous by the regime.
Par Par Lay goes to India to seek relief for a toothache. The Indian dentist wonders why the Burmese man has come all that way to see him.The photo accompanying the story is a whole lot more melancholy than the others we've seen of this gallant troupe. The family still has no idea where their star performer is being held, or what his condition might be. The man who even had a joke about why Burma escaped the worst of the 2004 tsunami, may be facing a dire catastrophe of his own -- alone.
"Don't you have dentists in Myanmar?" he asks.
"Oh, yes, we do, doctor," says Par Par Lay. "But in Myanmar, we are not allowed to open our mouths."
A general died and became a big fish, the joke goes. As the tsunami was rolling toward Myanmar, the fish came to the surface and told the wave: "Stop! I have already done that here."His wife is of course extremely worried about him, but tries to hold on to hope.
"If the government comes and takes his clothes and food, then I will know he is alive," said Ma Win Ma, Par Par Lay's wife. "That is enough. I believe one day he will come back and we can perform together again."The family once more asks for support from the world's entertainment professionals, which they believe helped win his early release from a 7 year sentence in 2001. Several popular entertainers, including famous comedian Zargana have been released in recent days but there has been no information yet on Par Par Lay. Comedians of the world, unite!
The excellent service provided by Flaming Peacocks, by offering translations of Burmese media reports, gives us more indications of morale problems within the army. This from a Burmese language report by Democratic Voice of Burma:
DVB reported Saturday that some soldiers who played an active role in the bloody crackdown against the monks have been psychologically affected by their own actions, resulting in defections and suicides.And in a translation of a Burmese language audio interview done by DVB with a recently released female member of National League for Democracy, Ma Ohnmar, some light is shone on the junta's lurid vilification of the monks. Detained women are being forced to confess illicit relations with monks (who have taken a vow of celibacy).
One of those severely effected was a soldier from Riot Police Unit 6, which was stationed at KaMarYut Township, Rangoon. On the 16th of October at 9pm, he threw himself into Inya Lake and committed suicide, said sources. He was said to have been involved in the crackdown at ShweDagon on the 26th of September and regretted his actions.
In Mandalay, some soldiers in platoons assigned to crush protests have defected as they loathed to carry out such orders against monks and the public. These soldier were stationed at the Indoor Stadium and the prison offices.
DVB reported that two of the women detained were put under duress by the Home Affairs Ministry to confess to having improper relationships with the monks who led the Saffron Revolution and the Patta-nikkujanna [refusal of offerings] against the junta. They were promised monetary incentives to become prosecutor witnesses to testify against the monks.If you read this interview, you'll see that among those so severely mistreated was even a member of the USDA, a junta-sponsored civilian organisation which does its bidding. This woman, who had been directed to infiltrate the protesters, was then herself scooped up in the crackdown and abused. She's now seen the junta for what they are, and has pledged never to assist them again.
But back to the forced confessions.
MO: These women were forced to confess to such allegations. One is called Ma Ei. She was in the news for allegedly having sexual relations with U Pyi Kyaw. The other one, Hnin Hnin, from Ngwe Kyar Yan monastery.. she was videotaped making her confession, with one person teaching her what to say to the camera. She is still in prison now. They want to use her as a prosecutor witness.Suffice to say that there is no respect for women in these concentration camps, much less for elderly or pregnant ones.
DVB: So these accusations are actually made up by the authorities?
MO: Yes, it looks like they want to fabricate proof that these monks involved in the revolution are fake monks. Ma Ei was released earlier because she made the confession under duress.
DVB: Did Ma Ei herself tell you that she had no such relationships with the monks? That she was forced to make such confessions?
MO: Yes, she did.
DVB: Did you meet anyone in the concentration camps or prison?Ma Ohnmar says that when she was questioned by her interrogators in the concentration camp about her plans, she told them that she would continue.
MO: Yes, there're currently 7 women left in prison that I know of. One is Daw Lei Lei from NLD. She's 60 years old, and has very high blood pressure and heart problems. There is also May Mee Oo, who is 4 months pregnant. She has been detained for a month. For the sake of her unborn baby, she is trying to get a nutritious diet, but it is really difficult in prison. It is crucial that these two women are released soon.
DVB: Is there anyone who was released together with you?
MO: Yes, there were 10 of us. One is an old lady, Aunty Daw Khin Pyone Yi. She was from Ngwe Kyar Yan monastery. She was there when the monastery was raided, and the Buddhist flag fell as the pole broke. So she held it up to prevent it from touching the ground. Immediately, she was surrounded by riot police and Swan Arr Shin (pro-junta thugs) who tied her hands behind her back, and beat her up nonstop as they dragged her away. By the time she got to the concentration camp, her blood pressure has shot up and she has lost consciousness. So she was admitted to Rangoon General Hospital and stayed there for 5 days. We saw her back; it was full of criss-crossed black bruises. Her back has not even healed on the day she was released.
The freedom lovers of Burma may be bruised and beaten, but they remain unbowed.