Monday, November 5, 2007

The Next Movement

My contact was a man of few words, and when the expected call to my mobile came, our conversation was predictably brief.

"I'm outside your guest house," he said. "There's a car. Come out and get in. Bye."

I picked up my notebook and walked out in time to see him zip off on a motorbike. I got in the waiting sedan. Its windows were black.

Inside I met Zue Hlaing Hten, 27, and Min Youn Thwe, 23, two Burmese student activists who were involved in September's uprisings in Rangoon. My contact had arranged the meeting, but in this edgy border town of spies and mercenaries, security was paramount.

We exchanged names, and then were silent. I didn't know how much the driver knew, or should know. He was wearing sunglasses. He followed my contact at a distance through the backstreets of Mae Sot. Spaghetti parlor piano spilled from the speakers.

On the outskirts of town, we pulled into the parking lot of a nice restaurant. I was about to open the door when the driver stopped me and said in clear English, "Wait." He kept the car running. Still, not a word was spoken.

Twenty minutes later, my contact pulled up beside us, and the driver told us to get out. We walked through the restaurant to a secluded table in the corner. Finally we could talk.

Zue Hlaing and Min Youn, who fled Burma just last week, told me about the state of fear currently gripping their country.

“The government set up many roadblocks to check on people and ask what they are doing,” Zue Hlaing said.

These two activists passed more than 10 police checkpoints in their bus journey from Rangoon to Myawaddy, before escaping across the border last Thursday into the relative safety of Thailand. But unlike many Burmese seeking a better life in this town, they aren’t planning their exile.

Zue Hlaing and Min Youn came instead to enroll themselves in an underground, four-day course on political defiance. The course is based on previous movements in Poland, Chile and Serbia, and teaches organization, operational strategy and leadership of mass protests. It is taught by a member and ex-rebel fighter of the All Burma Students Democratic Front, a militant group that formed after the Burmese military put the student uprisings of 1988 to a brutal end.

The course has been taught for 10 years now, and its teacher estimates 2,000 monks, students and teachers have been taught and sent back to Burma. Five students enrolled in the latest course, which finished today. Three of them have already returned to Burma. Zue Hlaing and Min Youn are waiting for word from inside on when it is safe to return.

Zue Hlaing, a petite young woman, with short-cropped hair, is nervous.

“When we came, they asked no questions. But when we go back, there will be questions,” she said.

They will tell the police they crossed into Thailand for the school holidays. But once they reach Rangoon, they will gather their friends and talk about Burma’s next uprising.

“We know that the student leaders of the movement were arrested. We wanted to come here, to learn, so that we could replace them,” Zue Hlaing said.

Zue Hlaing and Min Youn gave me a detailed account of the days of protest and its sudden bloody climax in Rangoon. Min Youn said when he heard of the government troops beating up protesting monks in early September in the central city of Pakokku, he was furious.

“The government calls themselves Buddhist. How can they treat monks like that?” he said.

On Sept. 23, when the protests were building in Rangoon, Min Youn was on his way back from a computer class when he rounded a corner and saw a small group of monks and lay people marching.

“I dropped to the ground, paid my respects to the monks and followed them,” he said.

Min Youn joined the protests each day after that. They were growing successively larger. He said he was thinking about the uprisings of 1988, which he had been told about by his parents who participated, and read about in smuggled books. But he could see no soldiers on the street, and he was proud and glad to march.

“I felt a tension release in my heart,” he said. “In Burma, there is so much tension because of the government pressure. We were not afraid. We were thinking we would get what we wanted.”

By Sept. 25 the protests had swelled to 100,000 people, including several prominent actors and writers. The crowd gathered around the Sule Pagoda, where a monk, a student leader and a member of the opposition party, the National League for Democracy, addressed the crowd.

“I couldn’t hear them,” Min Youn said. “I just heard we had to be disciplined and continue the struggle. We were so many people. It looked like a human sea. We were so happy to be taking action. We didn’t think the government could do anything.”

But that night, when the crowds had dispersed, government troops patrolled neighborhoods, announcing a curfew and banning groups of more than five people. Min Youn stopped in an internet café to chat with his friend in Singapore. She told him the international rumor that had been circulating.
“Be careful,” she said. “Tomorrow they will shoot.”
The next morning, Min Youn walked to the movement’s agreed meeting place, the Shwe Dagon Pagoda. Overnight, barbed wire had been rolled out in the streets. There were soldiers on the corners, and the gates to the Pagoda were locked.

Min Youn separated from the gathering crowd to look for a group of friends. As he was looking, he heard shots, and later found the crowd on the move, shouting ‘They killed a monk! There is blood on the Shwe Dagon!’ He joined them.

“At that time, all the people dared to die,” he said. “They didn’t care. They were not afraid.”

The crowd was followed by two trucks full of soldiers. At the Ahlone Dockyard they were stopped by another truck of troops in front of them. The soldiers shouted for them to stop. The crowd of about 300 monks and 200 lay people sat down, and started chanting prayers of compassion.

Suddenly the troops on both sides of the crowd shot their guns into the air. Min Youn and most of the others were able to flee in the chaos that followed, but 30 students were put in a truck and taken away.

The next day, Zue Hlaing said she saw the police beating protesters. She said she saw two people who were beaten to death and two that died from gunshots wounds. The protests continued over the next days, though smaller, and by Sept. 30th, they were finished.

After hearing news from their friends, Zue Hlaing and Min Youn estimate that in total, 50 to 100 people were killed in the Rangoon protests, and 5,000 people were arrested.

“I felt bad,” Zue Hlaing said. “I wanted to continue.”

But for these two students, who will return to Burma sometime in the next 10 days, the democracy movement is far from dead. Once back in Rangoon, they will use what they have learned in Thailand to start organizing the students for the next movement.

Zue Hlaing’s young face is proud and defiant.

“We’re not worried. We’re not afraid,” she said. “We will continue. We will try again.”

With that my contact cut in and said the car was waiting to take us home. I scribbled the last of my notes down and then quickly asked if they could give me false names that I could use in my story for their safety.

"Don't worry," they told me. "We already did."

8 comments:

robin said...

wow! what a story. great interview.

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