With Student Rebels in Burma

Seeking undemented revolutionaries whose cause is just, we journeyed by Land Rover to the frontier in northern Thailand, on horseback to a refugee village, and then on foot up and over the mountains into Burma. In the clearing were bamboo huts fronting tiny plots of corn and chilis, a dirt-floored “clinic” where needles are used up to three times each, a young soldier picking at a guitar. The guerrillas here smoked cigars and told lonesome stories by candlelight. We were that rare thing, a journalist, and they were glad to see us. If we’d brought guns or money this summer they’d have been even happier.

Just before we mounted our bony horse–wishfully named Dollar–two guerrillas came down the mountain carrying another on a litter. Malaria is common in the jungle; this apparently was malaria plus schistosomiasis. They put the sick man in the Land Rover and drove him into town.

The rolling jungle that covers so much of Southeast Asia is not the habitat these soldiers had in mind when they were younger. These are the children of Burma’s elite. The fierce Sikh who commands the regiment based here studied physics in Rangoon. The Shan tribesman who led us up the mountain, bouncing along in flip-flops and carrying our pack as well as his own, was a biologist. Actually, he confessed, what he’d wanted to be in life was a professional golfer. But no courses here.

The Shan, known to us as “Mosco,” was the regimental adjutant. He lives down below in the Thai frontier town of Mae Hong Son, where he scrounges the rice and other staples that keep the tiny post alive. In truth, Mosco despises the desolate life of the mountains and will do anything to avoid it except forgo the chance to lead tourists up at $60 a head. A woman who runs a guest house in Mae Hong Son supplies him with these adventurers. Mosco remembered meeting her. “I’m a revolutionary soldier,” he announced. “Don’t give up your day job,” she advised him.

Late at night, by the glow of the candles and cigars, Mosco reminisced. In 1962 Burma was the economic equal of South Korea, he told us sadly. That was the year the strongman, General Ne Win, came to power. Ne Win imposed his brutal “Burmese way to Socialism,” a way charted by numerology, and severed Burma from the outside world. Today, Mosco mourned, “we are poorer than poor.”

His story turned personal.

In 1987 he fled in fear when police attacked a demonstration in Rangoon. Uppermost in his mind was escaping Rangoon alive, but the students there persuaded him to carry a letter urging their Shan counterparts to organize. Up north Mosco was amazed to find himself hailed as a hero, and the next spring he was talked into leading a Shan student group into Rangoon.

The summer of 1988 was a season of student strikes, wholesale arrests, and massacres. In autumn the generals dismissed the puppet civilian government and seized authority as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC. At one point Mosco was arrested and held two weeks in jail. He was released when he promised to go home.

Friends invited him to join the resistance. He apologized, but he wasn’t up to that. But a morning came when he and a friend dared come out of hiding and visit a Rangoon tea shop. Some soldiers swaggered in; Mosco’s friend panicked and ran and was shot dead. Arrested again, Mosco once more lied. His guards showed him pornographic pictures and warned him that if democracy ever came to Burma his wife, his mother, his daughters would descend to this. Mosco denounced democracy, denounced politics of any kind.

So they let him go. He said good-bye to his friend at the mortuary and then sat and drank whiskey for hours. Weeping, he threw the bottle against the wall. And despite his parents’ pleas to do nothing rash, he vanished into the jungle.

About 10,000 students migrated to the Thai border in 1988. Hundreds died there of disease, and the Thais shipped back three or four thousand others. Some students have been killed in sporadic fighting, and others have given up. Fewer than 3,000 remain. As the former commander of Mosco’s regiment was pleading with one of his men to stick it out, he secretly arranged his own visa to Australia. Mosco wants to come raise money in America, but he knows he probably would learn English too well and enjoy life too much and never come back.

“The students are always down to their last baht,” said Derrick Taylor, a British writer we met in Mae Hong Son, where he was writing a book on Burma. “The [U.S.] State Department wants them to go to third countries as political refugees. The students refuse to. They know how many of their friends died. They know how many of their friends are enduring torture. It is too soon for them to turn their backs on all that.”

Vastly outnumbered by the north’s various tribal armies, the students hardly matter militarily. Politically they matter enormously, Taylor explained, because of who they are and because the tribal chieftains who’ve warred against Rangoon for decades are old men now and see the students as their heirs.

The tribal leaders want local autonomy or independence. The students want a free and pluralistic Burma. “They don’t have an ideology [beyond that]. In some ways that’s their Achilles’ heel,” Taylor said. “There’s no Che Guevara.”

Up in the mountains Mosco asked a soldier to remove his shirt. There were five bayonet scars on the soldier’s back. Mosco said this man was at the movies when the Burmese army came through his town; they abducted him and sent him to the front lines as a porter. He was repeatedly speared to keep him moving and finally left to die. Happens all the time.

Some Burmese spies claim to be defecting porters, Mosco explained. But the real ones have scars, and because of the abuse they’ve suffered they double up in agony when they’re punched in the lower back. The impostors are easily found out.

So then what? we asked him.

“We ask questions and we kill,” said Mosco.

Local Coverage

The government of Burma is one of the most vicious and illegitimate on earth. Said Amnesty International: “Hundreds of people were shot in the weeks following the [1988] coup by troops who fired on unarmed demonstrators or, in some cases, reportedly took alleged opponents from their houses and summarily executed them. . . . By mid-1990 hundreds, and possibly thousands, of people had been detained by the military authorities.”

Captain Thant Zin Myaing was a small fish in a 1976 attempted coup that was betrayed. Drummed out of the Burmese army, Thant studied law, and when SLORC announced it would hold national elections in the spring of 1990 he joined the newly formed National League for Democracy. But once the NLD began to campaign, the leadership was rounded up. The league’s most prominent founder, Aung San Suu Kyi, got off easy: she was placed under house arrest in August of ’89. The other leaders were tossed into Rangoon’s Insein Prison–so infamous a symbol of totalitarianism it’s been nicknamed “Mosco” (from which our Shan guide acquired his nom de guerre).

“I stayed away from home,” says Thant, who now lives in Chicago. “One week later the military came to arrest me, but nobody was home. I managed to slip through their hands. I went to the border.”

With its leaders behind bars, the NLD won 392 of the 485 contested seats in Burma’s national assembly. Military candidates won 10. SLORC simply annulled the election. Although she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, Suu Kyi remains under house arrest.

The vast distance between Rangoon and Chicago has been spanned by both commerce and conscience. On one level commerce is heroin, up to 75 percent of the drug reaching Chicago’s streets; on another it’s Amoco, which has paid SLORC millions of dollars for the right to search for oil. Conscience is the Coalition for a Democratic Burma, a small group Thant belongs to. In April commerce and conscience politely collided at an Amoco shareholders meeting. Just one of the reporters present found the confrontation newsworthy.

Frederick Lowe, a business writer at the Sun-Times, knew nothing about Burma. But that day he got an earful, and later he ran a computer search of the New York Times’s coverage. “They had written extensively on what goes on there,” Lowe told us. “I was kind of shocked, actually. It’s such a terrible situation that people are actually leaving Burma to go to Bangladesh!”

With little fanfare, the Burma coalition has leafleted outside the Amoco Building and at Amoco gas stations, and even sat down with senior Amoco executives in July. Lowe’s aside, the only local coverage of its divestment campaign the coalition is aware of has been by the Heartland Journal, house organ of the Heartland Cafe. “We haven’t been able to get the Tribune interested at all,” said the coalition’s Don Erickson. “I’ve sent materials to just about everybody there I can think of.”

“Sometimes I can see some articles, short articles on Burma in the Chicago Tribune,” Thant says. “But in the Boston Globe and other papers I see quite often articles. Even in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Chicago journalism is not very much interested in Burmese affairs.”

But Lowe said, “Stories about what companies are doing overseas will become more and more of an interest to readers in Chicago. I think things have begun to change enough that people will wonder, What is this company really doing besides making money or something? And that’s not to say I consider Amoco a bad company. But they have a shareholder base, and they’re in business to stay in business.”

Thant missed the meeting with the Amoco brass. He’d been in Washington earlier for some State Department discussions of a new Burma policy and was reluctant to ask for more time off from work. Thant’s a packager in a cheesecake plant.

Farewell, Friend

One of our favorite Chicago journalists just left town. Flora Johnson Skelly and her husband Tim built a home in rural Washington, and they’ve decided it’s time to live in it. Skelly wrote for the Reader, edited Chicago Times, and did everything for the American Medical News. Wise in all the important ways and then some, Skelly once gave us the most comforting news we’ve heard: Your kids’ new cat isn’t pregnant, she avouched; it’s just fat.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.