The Beasts of Burma 

Exiles in L.A. recall the war back home

Wednesday, Dec 23 1998
Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter

Last week, Los Angeles became the 23rd U.S. city to enact sanctions against the rogue military government of Burma, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). After stalling for months, the City Council voted unanimously to pass the "Free Burma" ordinance, which will bar the city from contracting with companies that do business in Burma.

L.A.’s Burmese community — estimated at 5,000 immigrants — rallied around the ordinance, drawing attention to the situation in Burma by chaining themselves to trucks owned by Unocal — a SLORC business partner — and staging demonstrations in front of City Hall. Some of these refugees agreed to talk to the Weekly about their lives under the dictatorship.

To paraphrase SLORC General Khin Nyunt, there are only two kinds of people in Burma, masters and slaves. One becomes a master by joining the army — everyone else is a slave.

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Here is a true history of Burma, seen through the eyes of those who came here.

Khin Maung Shwe, 43

In August 1988, the military rulers of Burma had two serious problems. On one front, insurgent ethnic groups were stepping up guerrilla campaigns against SLORC troops along the Thai border. On the other, the populace had reached the boiling point, and massive demonstrations against the totalitarian regime were staged in cities across the country.

In his hometown of Saggaing, Shwe worked as a manager in a salt factory and led a workers’ union before fleeing from Burma as a fugitive. Arriving in Los Angeles in 1989, Shwe took a job as a chemist in a medical lab. He lives in Alhambra.

We had a big demonstration in Saggaing. It was organized to demand democratic changes and the release of political prisoners. On that day, 20,000 people gathered around the town center.

We started the protest at 8 o’clock in the morning. Later, in the evening, police shot a bullet into the crowd. It wounded a 10-year-old boy in the back, so the people were very angry and wanted to attack the police.

The police went inside their office, and the people burned down one of the police cars. We all came together in one space and shouted for the democracy movement. That whole night we shouted and demonstrated in front of the police station, and we continued into the next morning.

They kept a lot of guns in the police station, but we didn’t believe the police would shoot their own people. Most of the police were from Saggaing and very friendly with the people. But the military gave the police alcohol and guns in the nighttime. All the police were drunk when they received the order to kill.

Suddenly we heard a hail of gunshots from every direction. Bullets hit everyone standing. I saw the police firing their weapons directly into the crowd. Men and women, hit by bullets, fell down. I still see those wounded trying to get up from ponds of blood, pain in their faces.

I saw a man carrying a bloody body. He asked me, "What will we do? My brother is dead." All I could tell him was, "Run while you can."

The police had machine-gunners down every street leading out of the square, so the people had no way to escape. They arranged to shoot so that any direction we ran, we ran into bullets.

We participated in the demonstration, and I was a leader of the workers’ union, so my wife and I had to escape. We went to live with the Karen ethnic group [which opposes the SLORC government] on the Thai-Burmese border, where I received military training and my wife worked for the camp hospital. There’s a lot of malaria there. The guerrilla groups were not strong, and after two months the military attacked the camp. We ran into Thailand.

Ko Latt, 34

As a student organizer, Latt found himself at the epicenter of the army crackdown in Rangoon. As more and more students were imprisoned without trial, Latt went into hiding and eventually crossed the border into Thailand. Military police arrested two of Latt’s brothers — the family has no knowledge of their whereabouts.

Latt now lives in Echo Park, works at a downtown L.A. jewelry warehouse and organizes Burmese refugees in the U.S.

Once, in 1988, two friends and I were walking down by the river in Rangoon. We came around a corner and saw soldiers making people stand in a line. When we saw them, we hid in the bushes and watched.

There were both young and old people in the group. The youngest was maybe 13 years old. We watched the soldiers line the people up, and we counted 49 people.

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