Burma: A necessary revolution is gaining momentum (09/03)

Burmese human rights activist James Hla Saw sat across from me at a teahouse 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 groups.

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 in Burma.

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 28 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.

UNOCOL 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.

Attempted Assassination

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 soliders.

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 killed.

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 University.

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 pawns."

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, Saw explains.

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 use children.

Dire Conditions

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."