|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.
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.
Then, for what reason we don’t know, the soldiers stood back and opened fire on the group with automatic weapons. They just shot them. They killed all 49 of the people. We know how many because we counted.
After shooting everyone, the soldiers just pushed them into the river. I saw this happen with my own eyes.
Kyin Kyin Nyein, 42
In 1990, SLORC held free elections for the first time since the junta came to power in a 1962 coup. But when 82 percent of the vote went to the opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and its imprisoned leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, the generals annulled the results and jailed the NLD leadership. Nyein was studying in the Philippines when her husband, Mye Win, won the parliamentary seat from Ingabu township.
Nyein now lives in Newhall and holds two jobs, one full-time in a factory, to support her family.
When the army issued warrants for the arrest of NLD politicians, my husband turned himself in because he thought he had done nothing wrong. He didn’t want to look guilty.
He was arrested in December 1990, and they sentenced him in April 1991 to 25 years.
They accused him of trying to overthrow the government. Some of his group ran away from the country, but my husband had two kids, so he could not run away. He is still in jail.
When my husband was transferred to Hayawaddy prison, he got malaria, and they put foot chains on him for a whole month. They only give the prisoners rice to eat . . . They don’t allow anything inside — they don’t even allow toilet paper. They have to sleep on concrete floors, and sometimes it’s very cold. I sent letters to my husband, but he didn’t get them. I now have five years’ experience visiting my husband in jail. He was supposed to be released this month on the condition that he leave Burma and never return. But the government didn’t allow him to get out.
In March 1997, I left Burma because my father had liver cancer — I had to pay a lot of bribes to leave. I sold everything I had to get fake passports for my family.
Inside my country, the people are in the dark. They do not know about world news. The government controls TV, radio, movies, newspapers, every publication. Everything is under [its] control.
I want to tell you the government is lying, and some people are listening to them. It is a corrupt government. They are all very rich, and the people are very poor. I don’t think of the U.S. as my home, but my home is not my home, because of the dictators. The country is their country, the people are their people. But my soul always goes back to my country.
Dr. Aung Khin, 62
Khin fled Burma in 1976 after finding himself in the middle of the conflict between SLORC and insurgent ethnic groups such as the Karen National Union (KNU).
Khin works as a clinical psychologist in Orange County.
I was forced to go into the jungles with SLORC soldiers as a medic. I had to obey whatever they said. They even forced me to work as a sentry to protect against the Kachin, one of the big rebel groups. The Kachin recently signed a cease-fire agreement with SLORC — they had no place to go.
At the time I was working for SLORC soldiers, I was posted to a small township called Kamaing, the location of Burma’s main jade mine. We were forced to march to another town 25 miles away, and we were ambushed the whole way. There were ambushes in every twist and turn of the road.
When I worked as a sentry, we didn’t have any weapons, we were just supposed to look out for strangers. Once, while I was doing that, there was a battle two blocks away between SLORC soldiers and Karen rebel troops — I was lucky I wasn’t hurt. Many soldiers died in my arms that day, from hemorrhaging mainly.
Another time, I was working at a hospital in central Burma. I went to see a patient, and as soon as I took care of that lady, I heard bang bang bang! They were attacking the police station. The rebel soldiers were coming from all around. I jumped through a window, and I was hiding in the tall grass — I narrowly escaped.
After the battle, the others told me the rebel soldiers were looking for me. They might have taken me hostage, or taken me to their headquarters and maybe killed me. When I went to the villages, the villagers would warn me, “This is where the rebel people come and go,” so the rebel soldiers might have known about me.
I was transferred to the southern tip of Burma, where I found many villagers forced to do labor — for the hospital, building roads and such. There I saw a whole truckload of soldiers killed by communist rebels. They all came through my hospital.
To leave I had to bribe immigration officers. When we were at the airport, I remember, they called me and my family into a small room. I was very frightened, but my wife paid a lot of money to the officers, so they let us take our stuff.
Thirty-seven years under the rule of Ne Win [commander of the Burmese military], and Burma is ruined. Soon my country will have zero population growth because of the AIDS epidemic. If you can buy a cigarette, you can get a shot of heroin. If you have money to buy one can of beer, you can buy two prostitutes.