Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Once Upon A Time In Myanmar (1)

General Ne Win (1911-2002).
Practicing politics in Myanmar(Burma) is an extremely high risk profession. A politician in dictatorial Myanmar could be arrested any time and during the long BSPP (Myanmar (Burma) Socialist Program Party) rule it could be outright dangerous for a politician to be arrested. Since I was very young I’d heard the tragic stories of many jailed politicians whose lives were forever destroyed. 

I often witnessed the MIS men in a Mazda E2000 mini-truck regularly taking away that old red-flag Communist Yee Mhaing (a) Nyo Mhaing whenever the dates of politically significant events from past approached. Sometimes he came back in few days but sometimes it could take months or even years. His life was so unstable he didn’t have a job. He couldn’t even work as an itinerant laborer and I sometimes felt really bad seeing him wandering from one teashop to another teashop.

I’d also seen mildly-mad Tin Aung Htun who used to live near my great uncle’s house when I was a young boy. He was arrested and tortured by Ne Win’s Government for his involvement in 1974 U Thant Uprising. Since then he would avoid a crowd. Whenever he saw a group of students in school uniform he became really scared and always tried to hide. Even though some students in our neighborhood laughed at his habit of running away and hiding inside the house whenever someone teasingly said to him that the students were coming I always wondered why did he become like that.

But one day I who had seen the ruined lives of two politicians first hand got a chance to read rare political literature. One of my friends exchanged my guitar for the big pine box full of books left by his recently deceased grandfather. Among the rare old books were two books titled “The Last Days of Thakhin Than Htun” one published by Mya-yar-bin Books and other one by the ruling BSPP. I read two books together and discovered that those two books with same title were completely different.

U Nu (1907-1995).
Since then I’d become familiar with the political literature. I began to know the real solid facts about the Thakhins, AFPFL, Communist Party, Thakhin Kodaw Mhaiang, etc, which were nothing like what we have been taught as the official History in our schools. These true historical facts about our Myanmar after Independence had basically changed me significantly.

Very soon I knew a lot such as what is BSPP, who really is Dictator Ne Win, who is U Nu, etc. Also from that time I began to dislike BSPP and Ne Win. I also knew more about 1974 U Thant Uprising where many university students were killed by the Army.

Then 1988 came. We used to chat a lot about March Incident when RIT student Phone Maw was killed by the police. One female teacher who knew I was always talking eagerly about politics even paid a visit to our usual hang-out Thain-koe-zae teashop and warned me not to stay at home and to hide. Only then I felt really worried about myself getting arrested.

But on the other hand I was childishly happy that the much-talk-about 8-8-88 General Strike would happen and probably bring the downfall of Ne Win’s BSPP government. I was only 16 back then.

I was even afraid that the Strikes wouldn’t happen. But if there would be an uprising because of the strikes I wanted it to be successful. Only then I wouldn’t be arrested I guessed. Thus I decided to participate in the coming General Strike. I wouldn’t run away I decided.

Even though I was worrying for myself because of that teacher’s warning, actually I didn’t really do much politically before.  Once I merely stood and watched the protesters burning a government Mazdajeep vehicle from the Tourist Myanmar by the Sule Pagoda.

And in last March when we heard about the student strike in the Yangon University I went there with two friends to watch. But we turned back after my friends chickened out and wanted to go back home. Even if we went into the Yangon University we wouldn’t see a thing as the actual student strike was in the Yangon Institute of Technology. But because of my two friends telling others about our misadventure I became well known among our friends as someone who had connections with the student strikes. 

In reality I had no political colors and no body had ever recruited me and no UG (Underground movement of a political organization) had ever encouraged me. I was just a politically curious boy and that nasty challenge of Dictator Ne Win on the State-owned TV daring the people to protest against his Socialist Government made me participate in the Uprising.

Historic Day 8-8-88

The morning of 8 August 1988.  

The Kyauktadar Township where I lived then was right in the middle of Yangon and that morning there were no shops opened in the nearby 38th Street Market but few street vendors.  Most of the shops on the  Anawrahtar Road (Frazer Road) were shut and all the gold shops were closed too. People were expecting a very large crowd of striking protesters coming into the city.

Every body was talking about the strikes all over Yangon and the various crowds marching towards city. Also the rumors of the arrival in Yangon of feared Chin troops with red scarves around their necks were breaking out everywhere. People were even saying that the Chins were gonna really shoot the protesters on the streets this time as Dictator Ne Win had threatened on the Government TV.

While we were waiting the marching strikers came into the city as expected. It was a huge crowd and by that afternoon the whole army of protesters coming into the city had turned back from the Pansodan Street and gathered in front of the City Hall. I and a few friends wanted to join the demonstrations but we managed to do only just getting in and out of the crowd.

Almost everyone covered their faces with pieces of clothing or handkerchiefs to hide their identity from the government agents taking secret photos. In my pocket I had a large handkerchief I prepared for this occasion yesterday in case I needed. By six o’clock the massive crowd was so incredibly huge anyone could have hard time getting through.

While I was standing at the corner of 37th Street and Maha Bandoola Road and watching the crowd a few with their faces covered and their bags slung across their shoulders came into the street and asked for packed-lunch donations as we had expected.  The overwhelming support from people of our street was incredible.
Every apartment block turned off the stairs-lights and the residents waited downstairs at the stairs and called out to the collectors and gave than already made packed-lunches. Every five or 6 stair cases was enough to fill their large basket with packed-meals. I was first watching the collectors carrying the heavy basket and suddenly decided to help them and so I willingly ended up carrying their basket laden with packed-meals.

I and one other carried the huge basket filled with packed-meals together back towards the Town Hall and people in the crowd along the way gave us way and also cheered us. Their cheers made me fresh again even though our shirts were drown with our own sweat from hard work. One of my first cousins joined me helping the supply troops for the protesters but later his father my uncle followed us and hit him on the head and took him home.

He told me to come back home with them but I just shook my head. I used to be afraid of that violent uncle but that night he left me alone when I stared back at him with my eyes just above the handkerchief mask covering half my face. I was really enthusiastic about the protest that night.

Colonial-era Yangon City Hall.
Not only the packed-meals the people had dropped many cases of Cream Soda and Orange Juice bottles from Dagon Soft Drinks Factory as Myanmar then didn’t have bottled water like now. There were piles of cakes, breads, and buns dropped there by people in Mazda B360 and B600 vehicles. I had never seen such expensive donation of food generously by the people of Yangon before.

We placed all these donated food at two places. One place was on the median strip of Maha Bandoola Road right in front of the City Hall and other was by the barbed-wire barricades on the corner of Barr Street and Maha Bandoola Road. We put the food packages and soft drink cases there right by the City Hall so that it will become a barrier if the soldiers already inside the City Hall rushed out and attacked and tried to arrest the protesters.

Never in my mind did a thought occur then that those soldiers would later brutally fire at the massive crowd gathering there. I was utterly wrong.

Encircled by the Troops

At nine in the night the ambulances inside the City Hall compound suddenly left and many Hino TE 21 trucks from the RTC (Road Transport Corporation) carrying more troops arrived. The army officers on the loud-speakers were now shouting at the crowd to disperse and not to wave the union flags any more. Behind the gates and the low fences of the Town Hall were the Chin Troops with their signature red scarves proudly around their necks.

Map of Central Yangon.
Instead of their usual jungle hats they were now wearing the steel army helmets. Their faces were extremely tense while their automatic G3 rifles were readily poining at the crowd. In the adjacent Barr Street were two rows of Chin soldiers one row on their kneels and one behind standing with all their G3 rifles aiming at the crowd as if they were in a target practice.

They were from the 22nd Light Infantry Division. That LID 22 would later become notorious as the Army Division that brutally slaughtered hundreds and hundreds of its own people.

People were shouting the political slogans at the top of their voices and many were loudly singing the national anthem. The bespectacled man carrying the big basket together with me kept on reminding me to stay with him all the time. He was much older than me and he was apparently so worried that I a younger boy could get lost easily in the crowd in such a possibly dangerous situation. Also with us were two young girls still in the school uniforms of white blouse and green sarong.

The scary rumors about the arrival of more army troops in the vicinity had gradually forced most spectators to flee back home. Only now I wondered the striking protesters should have retreated from that confined space too like the others. Back then I didn’t think of the real possibility that the leaderless demonstrating crowd was deliberately kept there by the BSPP agents to be easily slaughtered by the Government troops.

Those agents were the men telling the crowd the encouraging news loud and clear then. They were telling them that the State Council meeting had already started, BSPP collapse was imminent, democracy was near, and the Army was going to join us, etc, etc. Because of them the protesting crowd wouldn’t disperse till it was too late.

By then the army had blocked Maha Bandoola Road at both Pansodan Street and Sule Pagoda Road intersections. Sule Pagoda Road and Merchant Street were also closed off. We could see the troops now barricading the streets at Tourist Myanmar office and Shamee Confectionary   on the intersection of Maha Bandoola Road and Sule Pagoda Road. The huge crowd in front of the Yangon City Hall was now completely encircled by the armed troops from all four directions.
(direct translation of Ye Min Tun’s ‘Four 8 Uprising and Me’)

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