It was the end of September and the Burmese military had just used guns, sticks and tear gas to smother nationwide democracy protests, when Surrinder Singh Karkar, 43, knew he had to leave Rangoon.
While other activists lay low, changed their appearance, or went underground, Karkar faced a few setbacks. There was his dark skin and prominent nose, his long beard and sorbet-orange turban.
Karkar is a Sikh, of Indian parentage, but born in Burma. As one of the organizers of the uprisings, he says he was the only Sikh activist in the streets, pumping his fist for a revolution.
“Everyone knew me, I was there from start to finish,” he said. “The government wanted me, dead or alive, they didn’t care.”
On Oct. 4, Karkar, a used car salesman and father of three, made his escape. In a four-day journey to the Thai border, Karkar walked on the road, caught lifts on busses and slipped through the jungle to avoid checkpoints. He stayed a night in a village controlled by a pro-government militia, telling them he was a trader, and then snuck across the border by what he calls the “water road” – across the Moei River.
Now in Thailand, Karkar stays inside the compound of an exiled Burmese political group in Mae Sot. He came to escape the police roundup of protest leaders and to tell the international media what is happening in his country. He’s also waiting to have a doctor look at his back, where he was hit by a policeman’s bamboo stick. More than a month later, it’s still giving him pain.
But Karkar is not a broken man. Sitting down for a recent interview, he smiles broadly and sports a yellow shirt that says “Free Aung San Suu Kyi.” Karkar says he was the only Sikh but not the only ethnic Indian to join the protests – thousands of Muslims and Hindus did as well. There were many different colors in Burma’s Saffron Revolution.
The ethnic Indians of Burma, which make up two percent of the population according to the latest official census in 1983, have long been discriminated against and denied citizenship. They are likely a much larger population than the junta will acknowledge. Karkar said the Indian religious minorities saw the democracy protests as a chance to change their long history of persecution.
“They don’t give us Indians a chance,” he said of the military junta. “In Burma, the government has no interest in Indians. For this reason, we were happy to protest.”
Karkar, a veteran of the 1988 student uprisings, said many thousands of Hindus and Muslims participated in the protests in Rangoon and Mandalay. He said the deteriorating economic situation and the lack of rights pushed many into the streets.
“We live there, we work there, it is our home, but the military makes it difficult to eat and drink, to come and go,” he said. “We have no money to drink tea. What more can you say? If we Indians can’t buy tea, what can we buy?”
Many Indians are denied a passport in Burma, even if they were born there. Karkar says it takes a “black money” bribe of 100,000 to 300,000 kyat ($70 to $214) for an Indian to get one. In a country where the majority of the population lives on less than a dollar a day, to most, this is simply unaffordable.
Karkar describes the city he left in bleak terms.
“There are so many poor people, so many beggars,” he said. “It’s very difficult to live. There’s no food, it’s not safe. Daily we see the police take people away.”
Karkar said the situation is bad enough that people will not stay silent for long.
“For sure, more protests are coming,” he said. “Before the end of December, for sure they’re coming.”
Karkar’s wife and child are on their way out of Burma to meet him in Thailand. They will stay until his back is healed and they can safely return to their home. He said he’s not worried about finding his way back to Rangoon safely.
“This is in the hands of the man upstairs,” he said, looking skywards. “There are many roads in Burma, and many jungles. I will get back.”
Karkar said the diverse population of Burma will remain united against the government as they were in the September protests.
“In Burma, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and Buddhists, they all mix,” he said. “There is no problem. But the government is a problem for everyone. They make the chaos, they make the confusion.”
The fighting peacock - symbol of the democracy struggle in Burma.