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Burma Past and Present: Same and Different 

30 September 2022

The last week of August 2002 was an unusually rainy one. It has been 20 years since, but I cannot forget what was the most hostile, violent and stressful experience of my life during that week. Up until today, I can revisit the fear I felt then – the fear of losing the future, of never seeing my loved ones again. 

I was a third-year engineering student at that time. The final exam was drawing near, and that one evening in late August, I was studying while Mom and others were busy preparing for her 50th birthday treat the next morning. 

At about 11 pm, three men in plainclothes came to my home, and searched my study room. “National Bureau of Intelligence,” they said to my family, without giving their names and ranks or showing their IDs. “We have a few questions for him.” 

“We’ll send him back soon,” they continued. “Do not make any complaint to any entity.”

But in Burma, also known as Myanmar, a country under different forms of military rule for much of the time since independence from the British in 1948, I understood that a person who is taken away at midnight does not return “soon” but after years, or perhaps never. As the men led me away, Mom did not cry although she looked obviously worried, as did the rest of my relatives.  I was sad that I would miss her birthday.

‘I CAN SHOOT YOU’

“Where is Soe?” they asked me, once, during that quiet journey. “No idea,” I replied, crouched between two of them in the back seat of a Toyota Mark-II sedan. I could not tell which way we were headed, having been instructed to keep my eyes closed and my head down. After what I felt was about 30 minutes, the car came to a stop. They handcuffed and blindfolded me after I got off, and took me to a small room in a one-story structure that, when I was able to get a better glimpse later,  looked like a school building as it had rooms along a corridor. 

My interrogator—a stout, dark-skinned man who spoke Burmese with what sounded like a Mon accent — was one of the three who had come to my house. He asked for my personal information – name, birthdate, ID number, schools – and asked my parents, my relatives. They took photos of me. 

About an hour later, I was taken to a much bigger room where I was joined by about two dozen other men like me. At that point I realised that all my friends had been taken in too. We were made to stand in lines, our arms raised above our heads.

The interrogation centres where our seniors, and my friends and I once spent time in, are now occupied by our juniors. Many of today’s detainees were kids, or perhaps still in their mothers’ wombs, when I was taken away 20 years ago.

“Where is Soe?” the stern voice of a man, who was probably of higher authority, asked. “I can shoot you and make you all disappear if I want,” he threatened. He pulled back the slide of his pistol, releasing a round into its barrel chamber. “Don’t you dare be rebellious. Tell us where Soe is.” 

He cursed us for what seemed like half an hour, then went off. We were left in that big room, still having to keep our arms up. After some of us collapsed hours later, the guard who was assigned to watch us allowed us to sleep while seated on the floor, our torsos hunched over our knees.

In the morning, each of us was taken back to the first, small room of the previous night, and a series of long-hour interrogations continued. 

How I came to know Soe, how close we were, when we last met, what we did, what we discussed – everything about Soe from my point of view! I did not know where he was, I said. Indeed, he really had not told anyone. The MI guy’s questions looped around me, and I lost track of time, stealing naps only when he left the room.

The man called Soe, who they were rigorously hunting for, had written a letter expressing his unhappiness with military rule and his plans to publicly protest it. He then mailed copies of this letter to the head of the junta at that time, Than Shwe, to his cabinet members, deputy ministers, and even the junta’s puppet university rectors. After posting this letter, he went into hiding.

I had known Soe as a law student. A well-read and soft-spoken provincial man in his mid-20s, his eyes always sparkled behind a pair of glasses. But in our group – a network of politically active students from different academic and vocational universities around Yangon, Soe was a lone wolf— impulsive, appearing to be obsessed with heroism more than tactics and strategies. 

We were a group inspired by older generations of student activists. In 1996, our seniors left their classrooms, and demanded academic freedom and students’ rights. The junta threw their leaders in jail. We felt that it was our responsibility to continue their legacy. In Burma, students have been at the forefront of every political movement, be it against colonizer or military dictators.

We read political books, talked to veteran politicians, and worked on raising political awareness in universities. We published on-campus publications with what, on the surface, were literary content.

We monitored the national political situation. Aung San Suu Kyi had been released from house arrest for the second time since May of 2002, and was visiting ‘development projects’ in junta-arranged trips. 

In early August, Soe disclosed to us his plan for a solo public protest. He said he was impatient with the status quo. We disapproved, saying his action could not be helpful to anyone. “What’s the point?” we asked Soe. “Either you die in prison or survive at the risk of your health. The world might speak out, and the next minute they forget you.” 

But Soe was stubborn. We wished him good luck sadly, with a premonition of disaster.

Dozens of copies of Soe’s letter to the junta prompted military intelligence (MI) to urgently launch an “operation”. They searched his home but didn’t find him. They rounded up everyone in our group, which had been under their surveillance for a long time. They got us but not the answer they wanted, for we really did not know where Soe was. Two days after our arrest, Soe emerged from his hideout and staged a solo protest in front of City Hall, holding a banner with political statements. Minutes later, he was arrested.

Now they had got Soe. By now, they had pieced together the bigger picture from our individual stories. Now convinced that the protest was Soe’s independent action, the tense atmosphere during our interrogation sessions relaxed somewhat. The food given to us improved too, and we were allowed talk to each other – but not to Soe. Most of the time, our eyes were no longer covered. 

After the officers had crosschecked our confessions, made them all consistent and summarized them in handwritten reports, they read these out to each of us and had us sign them. 

Although we had been cleared from involvement with Soe’s protest, we still had our own “charges” to face since we were doing “activities unrelated” to our studies. We had to await an order from Khin Nyunt, their boss and the then junta’s spy chief. 

Exactly a week after, all of us except Soe (who was later convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison) were “handed over” to our parents in a ceremony. Also present were our rectors, looking like sheep in front of the MI officers. The guy who threatened to shoot us on the first night gave a speech. He did not give his name and rank, but said he was “responsible for the peaceful education of the students.” [Later, we found out that he was one of Khin Nyunt’s right-hand men, Maj Gen Than Tun.] 

“It was Soe who tried to taint your children’s innocent minds,” he said. “Your children only wanted to be engaged in colourless [non-political] activities but Soe was a black sheep.” 

He said his superiors were “generous” and forgave us (but not Soe), much like parents who were dealing with naughty kids. It was our parents’ responsibility, he warned, to keep a watchful eye on us.  Turning to our poker-faced rectors, he said: “Professors, please, do not expel your students.” 

At the end of his speech, nobody thanked him or his superiors. Our parents had stern faces, and he kept a straight one. In the awkward ceremony, there was no laughter, no applause, no smiles. We stank as we had not bathed or changed clothes for a week, and our parents also had not dressed up.

Each of us then signed a confession that we had been involved in activities “unsuitable” to students, and that we knew we would get punished if we did them again. 

Back home, my family and I talked into the late hours. On that August night, for the first time in years, I slept with Dad and Mom, in between them in their bed. The fear of losing me forever had kept them awake every night during my weeklong absence, they told me. As for myself, I believed that my return was a perfect birthday present for Mom.

LEGACY OF FEAR

Many people, including journalists from BBC Burmese, wondered if we had been mistreated. Yes, we were punched, yelled at, forced into positions meant to humiliate and make us suffer, but these were incomparable to what too many other detainees faced. 

Why did the junta release us? Perhaps they did not view us a serious threat, or they did not want to jeopardize the military’s attempt to show a nicer face after Suu Kyi’s release.

Whatever the reason was, my week with the MI had shown me the junta’s true face. Its leaders may use reconciliatory tones but their thirst for wealth and power, their arrogance, their distrust of civilians, and their hatred for Aung San Suu Kyi were evident in the words and actions of the low-ranking MI officers we had met.

In May 2003, Suu Kyi was back in house arrest, dashing any illusions about ‘reconciliation’. In October 2004, Khin Nyunt was purged as spy chief in an internal power struggle with his boss Than Shwe. His notorious spy network was dissolved and replaced with a new one.

Fast forward to 2022, two decades later: After a decade (2011-2020) of relative freedom and some prosperity, Burma is back in the darkness.

The interrogation centres where our seniors, and my friends and I once spent time in, are now occupied by our juniors. Many of today’s detainees were kids, or perhaps still in their mothers’ wombs, when I was taken away 20 years ago. How time flies, but how little has really changed.

One thing that has changed, however. The whole country, including the Bamar in the heartland who had never been affected by fighting in the ethnic lands and barely understood the true cause of civil war, now realises that the junta will never have a change of heart. Change will have to be forced on it.

A new generation – braver, more clever and more resourceful than we have ever seen in our past – is continuing their seniors’ legacy. They are determined to bring about real change by freeing future generations from the decades-old cycle of fear that has ruled Burma for far too long.

(*Zwe Mahn is a writer and translator. He prefers to call his country ‘Burma’, which was its name until a previous junta unilaterally changed it to Myanmar in 1989.)

(END/Reporting ASEAN/Edited by J Son)

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