A Necessary Revolution
Despite repression, the campaign
to liberate Burma
is gaining momentum
by L. Phyu
Toward Freedom, Fall 2003
Burmese human rights activist James Hla
Saw sat across from me at a tea-house in New York City. I'd met
the 29-year-old Columbia University graduate a week before, on
July 15, when he and fellow Burmese human rights activists gathered
near the UN to protest Special Envoy Razali Ismail's recent trip
to the Asian nation.
The protesters included Australians from
the All Burma Student Democratic Organization (ABSDO) in Sydney,
a Japanese Buddhist monk, and activists from across the US. It
was the first time that various organizations, including the Free
Burma Coalition and All Burma Students League (ABSL), had converged
with leaders from Australia, Belgium, Canada, San Francisco, New
York, Japan, and India. One concrete result was the formation
of the Democratic Federation of Burma, a new network of pro-democracy
About 50 members of this umbrella organization
gathered near the UN to express their discontent about Razali's
failure to bring back proof of 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung
San Suu Kyi's whereabouts after reports of a massacre in the town
of Depayin. They were also calling for more aggressive action
against Burma's rulers, a military junta that has held Suu Kyi
under house arrest for more than a decade, as well as for democracy
in Burma. Four-days later, supporters protested in front of the
Burmese Embassy in New York City as part of "Ah-Za-Ne Day
(Revolution Day)," commemorating protestors previously killed
Since 1962, Burma (currently called Myanmar
on maps) has been governed by a military regime responsible for
human rights violations on a par with North Korea's. Suu Kyi leads
the National League For Democracy (NLD), Burma's opposition party.
The word in the activist community is that UN Secretary-General
Kofi Annan has invited Suu Kyi for questioning at the UN in September.
With over 400 votes, the US House and
the Senate recently passed The Free Burma Act. In early August,
it awaited President Bush's approval. Britain has instituted a
partial trade embargo and cautions against travel to Burma, warning
that profits from tourism support the military regime. Southeast
Asian nations are also exerting heavy pressure on Burma's government
to free Suu Kyi and begin the shift toward democracy.
Nevertheless, businesses such as the Union
Oil Company of California (UNOCAL) continue to conduct business
with the Burmese government. UNOCAL reportedly has a 2S percent
share ($1.2 billion) in the state-owned Myanmar Oil Gas Enterprise.
In 1992, the company signed a $400 million contract with Burmese
officials. At the time, activists reported that villages were
being cleared to make way for natural gas pipelines, with inhabitants
forced by the military to work on the projects.
UNOCAL argues that it has created jobs.
But opponents charge that the energy company "can't recruit
more than 200 people" and is "investing in cheap labor
while the contract with Burma is in the millions."
Activists also claim that, despite sanctions,
businesses from surrounding nations still do business with the
military. Through the China border trade alone, the military generates
millions each year.
In late May, rumors about an attempt to
assassinate Suu Kyi spread like wildfire in Burmese circles around
the world. Soon afterward, the government placed her and 18 prominent
members of the NLD in "protective custody." In a statement,
the government denied that it was responsible for the attack,
but admitted that four people were killed and 50 were wounded.
It accused members of the NLD of attacking the soldiers.
According to eyewitness reports, Suu Kyi
and NLD members had been touring the rural countryside. During
that trip, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA),
State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), and "Swan Are
Shin," a USDA faction trained in a high school to fight with
wooden clubs and machetes (with shaved heads to disguise themselves
as Buddhist monks), harassed the group.
On May 30, Suu Kyi left for Butalin. The
day before, the USDA had staged another ambush near the village
of Ye-Po-Sa. That attempt failed when her supporters formed a
blockade between the attackers and the motorcade. The same day,
students and other supporters were beaten and arrested in nearby
towns. The idea was to prevent them from "reinforcing"
the motorcade against attacks. A Buddhist monk and a student were
According to reliable sources, 3000 members
of Swan Are Shin, armed with clubs, machetes and other weapons,
were involved in the May 30 attack. At about 8 p.m., 20 trucks
carrying men dressed as monks were sent from the Butalin side.
The USDA allegedly gave uniforms and weapons to prisoners from
Mon Ywar Prison, offered them 300,000 Burmese Kyats ($300) and
freedom to aid the ambush. Five men, two of them disguised as
monks, asked Suu Kyi to speak.
When the motorcade reached the location
where the trucks were hidden, two vehicles drove into Suu Kyi's
car. Others began attacking villagers and supporters. Although
she escaped, the 250 supporters left behind were beaten with clubs
and bats and stabbed with machetes, bamboo spears, and knives.
Some were killed or arrested. Female protesters were forced to
strip. Money and jewelry was stolen.
The incident reportedly lasted two hours.
At midnight, the bodies of the dead were removed in trucks by
officials. The injured were arrested early the next morning.
Suu Kyi and 18 NLD officers were later
taken into "protective custody" at the entrance to the
town of Ye U. The military claims that 46 student protesters,
who they allege were involved in the incident, were detained at
the Northwest Military Command at Monywa and later returned to
their parents. Opponents counter that the students detained were
those arrested on the road between Monywa and Depeyin. The NLD
members from the Depeyin incident were sent to Burma's notorious
Insein prison through a prison transfer from Mandalay Bay. Insein
is infamous for its unethical treatment of prisoners, including
reports of torture.
According to Saw, the number of injuries
and deaths were substantially higher than officials admit. Suu
Kyi was reportedly held at Insein in a two-room enclosure. Contrary
to US Envoy Razali and the Burmese military, eyewitnesses claim
that she was hurt.
In response, Annan sent Razali to meet
with Burmese officials and see Suu Kyi for himself. He had previously
succeeded in negotiating for her release from house arrest. This
time, however, he failed. Instead, he verified that she was being
confined under deplorable conditions and succeeded in having her
moved to a different location.
Within the Burmese community, some charge
that Razali is motivated by personal interests, investments, and
his closeness to the regime. They also claim that he met with
military leaders ten times before the attack. "He's talking
his own business," said one protester.
EYEWITNESS TO TERROR
When James Hla Saw was 12 years old, he
was arrested for having political propaganda. Although not a political
activist as a teen, he became a go-between in border villages.
In 1990, at age 16, he fled to India, where he became involved
with the ABSL in Delhi. In 1999, he left India on a USIA scholarship
to Hartwick College in Oneata, New York, then proceeded to Columbia
Asked why he became involved, he explained,
"You want to defy when you're suffering." One day, he
was watching television when a drunk Burmese solider entered his
home and went upstairs to his sister's room. The intoxicated soldier
stripped and fell asleep in his sister's bed. Realizing what had
happened, he fought with the soldier. The next day, soldiers came
to their home to intimidate them into submission.
"They thought they have power, so
they could do it," he recalled. "People in the border
areas suffer more. They are very simple and become the army's
Each time there's a political uprising,
Burma's public schools and universities are closed. Lack of education,
a shortage of intellectuals remaining in the nation, as well as
control of most of Burma's economy by the military and those loyal
to the junta has created a wide gap between the poor and the rich,
Lack of education and jobs drives some
to join the Burmese military. According to a poll conducted by
the Burmese Economic Research Department every four years, the
regime spent 49.92 percent of the national budget on defense in
1999. Just 6.98 percent was spent on education, and approximately
2.6 percent on health. According to a May 2003 article by Tony
Broadmoor in The Irrawady, a Thailand-based magazine, the disparity
has become even worse since then.
With troops in virtually every village,
the military exerts absolute control. Residents must register
the identities and number of permanent occupants per home. A national
identity paper is required to travel, and troops guard each checkpoint.
That's how they became aware of Saw's activities.
Although he wasn't an opposition leader,
Saw did work as a middleman between many pro-active democrats.
Noting his travel patterns and meetings with student activists,
the military started asking questions. Eventually, he was forced
to flee to one of the two refugee camps near the Burma-India border.
Once there, he noticed that members of
the Burmese military had also ended up in the camps, some of them
child soldiers as young as 13. The military picks up random people
in rural areas, especially near the border, and either forces
them into slave labor or recruits them into the military. Orphanages
are also targets of the regime, Saw claims. Orphans are "militarized,"
and children as young as eight are taken to camps for training.
According to a 2002 human rights report, Burma's army has over
70,000 child soldiers. Ethnic armies fighting the regime also
The exodus of Burmese refugees into bordering
nations brings with it diseases like malaria. Yet Burma s greatest
health crisis is currently AIDS. Burmese women and girls as young
as 12 are either kidnapped in border areas, sold into the sex
trade, or turn to prostitution to make a living. In 2000, Burma
was 190 out of 191 nations in the World Health Organization's
ranking of healthcare quality (the worst was Sierra Leone). The
average life expectancy is 55. Based on 1999 studies, a report
by the Bloomberg School of Health at John Hopkins College estimates
an HIV incidence rate of approximately 3.46 percent.
The military refuses to acknowledge the
increasing spread of AIDS, even though it has reached into the
military elite and, according to a doctor who runs a private clinic,
one in ten patients he sees is HIV positive. Prostitutes are arrested
by the Burmese military when caught in possession of condoms.
Awareness programs about AIDS, some of which offer condoms, and
adequate HIV testing are both expensive and socially taboo.
According to Saw, Suu Kyi plays a pivotal
role because "she represents the will of people. That is
why I'm supporting her. I've been inspired by her willingness
in continuing to struggle for democracy."
On July 15, in front of the UN, he and
other protesters chanted, "No faith in Razali! Free Burma!"
"We have no more faith in Razali,"
explained a Burmese activist. "I see the economic condition
there and nothing has changed to this day." Another protester,
a former general with Kachin, one of the rebel groups fighting
the army, added: "UN inspectors aren't doing their job efficiently.
Razali was sent to find the whereabouts of Aung San Suu Kyi and
came back without it."
L. Phyu is a journalist based in New York