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Saturday, September 19, 2009

21st anniversary of the military coup in Burma: 18 September Generations of struggle

Thoughts from an anti-junta activist who marched the streets of Rangoon in 1988.

By Aye Min



Today, 18 September, marks the 21st anniversary of the bloody military coup in Burma. I was a young medical student then, and along with millions of people took the street to fight for freedom and democracy in military-ruled Burma. I vividly remember a scene near the U S embassy in downtown Rangoon on 19 September 1988, one day after the army declared a military coup. There were barbed wires on the street with a sign saying “Will be shot beyond this point”. Thousands of people were on the street chanting slogans. Peacock flags, the symbol of the student movement, were everywhere. We saw soldiers on rooftops with guns ready. We pushed the “will be shot” sign aside and kept on marching. I heard a volley of gunfire when we reached the intersection near the U S embassy. First, I thought the soldiers were just shooting in the air to scare us away. But when people around me started to fall to the ground, I realised they were shooting at us. I ran as fast as I could for a block. When I looked back, there were people lying on the street, a lot of them writhing in pain. Some were not moving at all. Some people in white coats and red-cross arm bands tried to retrieve the injured people. Then there was another volley of fire, some clearly aimed at the rescue personnel. After a while the injured people stopped moving. It is a scene I cannot forget.

I left Rangoon the following day with two friends. After three weeks of walking in the jungle we finally reached the Three Pagoda Pass at Thai-Burma border. There, we formed the All Burma Students Democratic Front, probably the first student army in the world. We did not consider ourselves militants or extremists. We felt it was the last option we had after the month-long peaceful street demonstrations to dislodge the regime, which resulted in approximately 6000 dead or disappeared. I was with ABSDF for three years, during which time I made a lot of new friends and lost some. In my battalion, we lost 21 students. Another 17 were wounded in action. I myself got shot twice. Two small pieces of shrapnel are still inside my body, souvenirs from my days as a freedom fighter. From 1988 to 2008, the ABSDF has mourned over 1000 dead and wounded. I hope history will remember those unsung heroes.

In 1992, I left the ABSDF and moved to Bangkok, where I lived for eight months, sharing a two-room apartment with eight others. I got a job washing cars all night long for USD 4. We were recognised as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) but occasionally considered illegal immigrants by Thai police. One time, my apartment was raided by the Thai police and all of my friends arrested. I was away grocery shopping. Fortunately, my friends were released with only a warning. The friends I still keep in touch with from those days are like a family to me.


Student leader Htun Aung Kyaw and group on their arrival to Three Pagoda

Fast-forward 21 years later, I now practice medicine in a small quiet town in the suburbs of Washington D C. I have a family with three beautiful children. I have a comfortable life but my mind is restless as ever.

Wasted money
In Burma, over two decades later, the same regime is still in power. A few of my friends are still with the ABSDF, some are resettled in the U S and others are scattered around the globe. Our struggle continues in a different form. Now, former student activists from the 8.8.88 movement have advanced degrees in various fields. Many have the financial freedom to help the ongoing movement and are doing so. That support will continue to grow with time. The assistance from individuals has been keeping the movement alive. For this reason, our movement will not go away and will get stronger.

Every year, US governments and NGOs spend millions of dollars on our cause. Most of the assistance goes to a handful of opposition organisations and individuals. As a US taxpayer, it really bothers me to see my tax money wasted, even though I support the US assistance in principle. The money is usually ineffective as all of the grass-root activists I know do not receive any meaningful assistance besides moral support from NGOs or foreign governments. In 8.8.88, we were alone and 21 years later we found ourselves again alone fighting the entrenched regime, which has 400,000 soldiers.

I believe the US western governments, and international donors are gently nudging the opposition to participate in the coming sham 2010 election. This subtle shift in policy may be due to lack of progress despite years of support and spending millions of dollars. It may also be due to their frustration with the lack of strong leadership and a winnable strategy for the movement from leading opposition organisations and figures. In my opinion, this is due to the flawed strategy of investment in a handful of groups and individuals (who haven’t produced any tangible results) rather than nurturing the movement as a whole. If that is truly the reason for the policy shift towards encouraging opposition participation in the 2010 election, it will be a tragic mistake for the U S and international governments. The noise of support for the 2010 elections is coming only from a handful of people who clearly do not represent the majority of Burmese people. Supporting the 2010 election or legitimising the sham election results will be a betrayal of the Burmese people in this struggle.

A group of intellectuals called “Third force” have been lobbying the international community to accept the military sponsored 2010 election which in turn they hope will lead to a slow change toward a free and democratic country. This argument is incredibly naive. To put that idea into practice we would have to put faith in a regime that has held uncontested power for twenty years and driven the country’s living standard and political freedom into the ground. The military regime appears unstoppable: it was unscratched during the 2007 Saffron Revolution, and successfully rigged the referendum for the new constitution. Now the generals are planning to use the 2010 election to cement their hold on power. However, there are several big flaws in their plans. The regime practices neither capitalism nor socialism but nepotism. They are not nationalists but dictators. There is no rule of law, a fundamental requirement for economic prosperity and stability. Basic living standards for average citizens have plunged. There will be another economic crisis and a subsequent uprising, solely due to economic discontent.

Furthermore, the underground network of activists continues to grow despite continued arrests and intimidation. The main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, still enjoys popular support despite harsh crackdown and its leader, Daw Aung San Su Kyi, under detention. Generations of activists – from ‘74, ‘88, ‘96 and now the 2007 – remain more committed than ever to the struggle for freedom. Twenty-one years later, we are more experienced, educated, better financed and most importantly, still enjoy the trust and support of the Burmese people. We toppled three successive governments in 1988 and will do it again. All we need now is the participation of patriotic soldiers or ‘Ramos of Burma' to join this National Liberation Movement. History has shown us that no regime holds on to power forever – the Burmese military regime is no exception.

Aye Min is an 88 generation activist. He is an executive member of Free Burma Federation and also a member of Global Action for Burma. He currently practices medicine in Virginia, U S A.

ဒီေနရာက ကူးယူေဖာ္ျပထားတာပါ

အညာေႏြတမာေျမ

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