Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Once Upon A Time In Myanmar (2)

A Soldier from LID 22.
Once we knew we were trapped the bespectacled man led me down the Lower Barr Street to find a possible way out. Two young school girls with us were also following us and they were so scared they wouldn’t let go the hem of my shirt from their tight grips.

While we were rushing pass the High Court on Lower Barr Street they cut off the power and the whole city had suddenly descended into a total darkness. Only the City Hall and Sule Pagoda were dimly lit by their own emergency generators. When I looked down at my little wrist watch the time was well over 11 O’clock. Right ahead of us were the lines of armed soldiers from Myanmar Navy blocking the street at the intersection of Lower Barr Street and Merchant Road.

We were now hopelessly trapped.

Bespectacled big brother now holding me tight by the neck whispered to me, “Little brother, we have to run into that lane between the MEB (Myanmar Economic Bank) branch and the American Embassy.” I told him that lane was a no-through-road as the other end was a dead end. He said, “I know, but we have no other way out. Soldiers have blocked everywhere and we just have to run into the American Embassy from the rear. Once I counted 1,2,3 we run through the gap between two soldiers to get into that lane.” 

He was determined but we were scared shitless. But I still explained to the two girls still holding me tight by my sides what we were going to do and started looking for a possible gap among the lines of soldiers standing at attention pose. We were all horribly shaking with fears. And the bayonets at the end of their rifles were horribly flashing in the moonlight.

The girls asked me what we were going to do if the soldiers started shooting at us. I had not a bloody idea so I just answered them to run to escape. The crowd around us had already accepted the fact that the soldiers were really going to fire soon and some people started crying out aloud while some even sung the anthem louder and louder.

Some were even shouting ridiculous stuff like People’s Soldiers Our Soldiers, People’s Army Our Army. And we could hear the loud cries of We are Myanmar, What we’re doing is For our Myanmar from the crowd behind us. I thought these cries were the desperate pleadings of people to the soldiers to disobey if their superiors gave them the orders to shoot.
Old US Embassy opposite Bandoola Park in Yangon.

By that time we were at a quite a distance from the crowd back at the Town Hall. There were only 20 or 30 people near us. Then the bespectacled big brother quickly counted 1,2,3 and we four ran through the lines of soldiers. Others followed us.

I didn’t even recall how I pulled through two soldiers the two young girls holding tight on my each hand. Amidst the yelling of the surprised soldiers I didn’t even remember how we four and the rest all got through unharmed without a scratch on us. But we got through the lines of soldiers.

Only later I could conclude that the possible reasons for our lucky escape were that the soldiers didn’t really expect us to run through them and they probably didn’t have the firing order yet and they were only the navy men stationed in Yangon. If they were the battle-hardened Chin soldiers coming from the frontline we would have been slaughtered like what happened to the rest just a few minutes later.

Taking Refuge in US Embassy

Once we were out of the Lower Barr Street we pushed away the barbed-wire barricades from the Embassy lane and tried to enter the American Embassy through its side door. But the brick wall behind the Embassy was more than two men’s height and the side entrance had a full-height one-way turnstile through which one can only get out not in. No way could we get into the embassy’s backyard through that turnstile.

So we broke through the door of the rear wall of the adjoining Government office and climbed onto the protruding air-conditioning units on the back wall of that office. From there we pulled ourselves onto the rows of barbed-wire mounted on the top of more than 20 foot high rear-brick-wall of the embassy.  From there we had to jump down onto the ground of the embassy’s narrow backyard. It was so high one of the young girls fell and sprained her ankle.

All together 22 in the backyard we counted. We didn’t even dare to breathe aloud. The backyard and the whole surrounding was completely dark and lifeless silent. Suddenly the lights in the backyard came on and the CCTV cameras mounted on the back wall of the Embassy were alive. Bespectacled big brother yelled out aloud in English that we were students and immediately the lights gone off.

Then someone from the laneway shouted through a handheld loudspeaker, “Hey, the group going in there, come out now. That area is the territory of a foreign diplomatic mission and you all will be prosecuted. Come out and go back homes now.” Then we heard someone calling the man with loud speaker, “Captain, Captain,” and after the sounds of the footsteps rushing away from the lane way the total silence had come back again.

State Massacre

For next few seconds nothing could be heard in the ice-cold silence. But it didn’t take long at all. We heard the deeply disturbing sounds of the crowd suddenly collapsing and running away as the dang-dang sounds of two rifle shots came out first. The very long bursts of prolonged automatic gun-shots followed. From where we were we could clearly hear the loud cries and deep screams of the people getting killed by the advancing troops.

The troops had rapidly tightened their constricting hold of the besieged crowd by shooting anyone on the streets and quickly advancing their attacking lines inward towards the City Hall where the epicenter of the huge protesting crowd was. Army had even issued hundreds of 12 gauge shot guns to the shooting troops on the frontlines to enhance the effectiveness of close-range killings. Conservative estimates put the death toll at 10,000 at least.

Even though we all sat together really close and holding each other’s hands tight in the darkness our bodies were shaking with sadness and surprise and fright and anger altogether. Bespectacled big brother said in a crying voice, “Remember today and this time, and never ever forget this.” The time was 15 minutes before 12 O’clock on my watch.

11:45 in the night of August 8, 1988.

Amidst the loud gunfire were the cries and screams and begging of people on the open streets to the soldiers not to shoot at them. The dark screams of the hapless people brutally slaughtered in the dark 8888 night might be like the boiling of hot oil in the cauldrons of the Great Hell we Buddhists believe in. I’d never heard such horrible deep screams ever before in my young life and I still believed I would never hear them again in the future.

I was so angry I had frightening goose bumps all over and the shivering made the hair stood on end. My whole body was uncontrollably shaking as I tried to control my busting anger. I felt like letting my mind go and break some thing violently there. 

After few hours of shooting we started hearing the rushing in of many trucks on the streets and later the watery splashing sounds of many fire-engines cleaning the roads with their fire-hoses. Then we heard the same many trucks driving fast passed the embassy towards the naval wharves of Yangon. We could clearly hear the desperate Please help us, they are taking us away, they are killing us pleas and the deep screams of the wounded from the passing trucks. And all of us there cried.

As their usual practice to hide the mass slaughter the Army immediately sent in the sand-filled open trucks to remove the dead and dying from the scene. The bodies some of which were still-alive were then taken to the sand-filled naval barges waiting at the Yangon Naval Base and then dumped at the crocodile-infested waters where the Yangon River meets the sea. The Army also used the fire-engines to clean the scene of massacre spotless within few hours to remove all the traces of mass slaughter.

Finally the noises had slowly died down and the previous Army Captain came back again with a real loud speaker this time. “People still in the Embassy’s backyard, come out and go back to your homes peacefully. Otherwise we will take appropriate actions according to the law,” he started shouting at us again.

Only then a window on the Embassy’s second floor was opened and a hand came out and spotting us on the ground with a torch light as if we were being counted from above. One man in a torn shirt from our group was frightened and he rushed towards the steel gate and tried to open the door from inside.

But I and the bespectacled big brother rushed in and stopped him from opening the door. After that we just blocked the door with our backs and told every one in the backyard to back down and not to come near us but the two young girls were so scared they just came up and stayed with us by the gate.

Later the people from the Embassy’s second floor dropped down water and soft drinks and cakes and bread for us. But I didn’t touch the food as I didn’t feel like eating or drinking at all. Only fear and anger occupied my mind and I was also thinking about the sad facts that the people from the huge crowd in front of the Town Hall were brutally killed by the countless bursts of automatic gun fires. Till the morning arrived most of us kept on crying at the same time saying repeatedly that one gun shot could hit so many people in the crowd.

At about 6:30 we opened the door for the people wanting to go home. We asked them to yell back at us if nothing dangerous outside but most just silently disappeared except for the four who came back to the gate and shouted there was nothing outside. But we didn’t believe them and still we didn’t dare to go out. Finally only six including me left in the Embassy’s backyard. Day was quickly breaking and we could see each other’s faces clearly.

Except for the big brother with glasses the rest were all teenagers 15 or 16 year old. Then we held each other’s hands tight and agreed to leave the embassy compound. On the streets everything appeared normal like nothing serious had happened last night. Thoroughly washed asphalted streets were shinny black and not a piece of rubbish on them. Only then I began to know the brutal characteristic of the military government. 
I had the complete confidence to say that hundreds and hundreds of people died there that night by the evidence of me actually hearing myself the long bursts of continuous gunshots from the massive firing into the huge crowd. I could confidently claim that my statement is true. The bespectacled big brother and two young school girls are still alive today and they will be my witnesses.

Mourning for the Lost Souls

What I wrote was what happened exactly on my first day of the 8-8-88 Uprising. I will never forget that till the day I die. I will mourn for the fallen and I will not let them go from the purgatory of my mind till this military dictatorship is removed. This is my promise to the people who lost their lives in fighting for what they really desired but never achieved in their lifetimes. I believed that the fallen will also fight the dictators with their tortured souls to the end.

I will be a witness in a people’s court when the time comes to prosecute the mass murderers of Myanmar Army for the 8-8-88 midnight slaughter of thousands of people in Yangon. For cruelly firing into the unarmed crowd in front of the Yangon City Hall exactly at 11:45 in the night of 8 August 1988 in the darkness after cutting the power to the city. The Embassy’s CCTV camera records will prove our refuge that night in the backyard of American Embassy on the middle of Merchant Street.

Every anniversary of 8-8-88 Uprising has been a difficult day for me as I felt like drowning as if my insides were depressed to such extent that I couldn’t breath no more. On every August 8 I always felt like I would never be in peace again. But I am not praying for the fallen yet. Only when the military is put on a trial and only after the huge blood debt is repaid I will pray for the souls of all the fallen to rest in peace.

My head bowed down with deep sorrow I salute the fallen monks, men and women, and the students who have sacrificed their lives in their fight for democracy in Myanmar.

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