Far from home: 20 years in exile

Htet Aung Kyaw

Sep 19, 2008 (DVB), It was midnight on 19 September 1988, the day that government troops shot dead at least five demonstrators and wounded many more in Tavoy, southern Burma.

About 100 university students, young men and women, escaped from the killing field to my village across the Tavoy river to discuss what to do next.

Finally, we agreed to go underground to launch an armed struggle. "It will not take more than 20 days," Tin Lay, chairman of Tavoy district Students' Union, told his followers before we headed to the eastern jungle where we hoped to take up arms and fight back against government troops.

But now, we are far from home , 20 years, not 20 days. My life has totally changed, from 24-year-old university student to rebel leader and now to exile. Dozens of my comrades were killed on the battlefields while Tin Lay and others fell victim to jungle intrigue.

There was no opportunity for an independent inquiry so no one knows who killed Tin Lay and why. But according to a brief report by a former student from battalion 201 of the All Burma Students Democratic Front's Minthamee Camp, Tin Lay and seven students were killed in spy games while 81 were killed on the battlefield.

The ABSDF’s official website, www.absdf8888.org, confirmed that account and said that a total of 992 students were casualties of jungle life; 344 were killed on the battlefield and 394 wounded, while 254 died of disease or other causes.

After 20 years of fighting, how many are left of the thousands of ABSDF members now, aside from those 992 martyrs? You can still see a few hundred in the Thai-Burma border area while thousands of others have resettled in the West; North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

What are they doing now? Are they still fighting for democracy, the main reason they left their county in 1988, or are they just enjoying the full scale of human rights on offer to them in their new democratic homelands?

"This is our individual right!" insisted one of my comrades who has resettled in North America. "As you know, we fought the enemy for 10 years in the jungle spending our time wrapped in leaves. Now is the time for my family," he explained to me.

"We want to continue our struggle wherever we are," another comrade who resettled in Europe told me. "But we face many regulations here restricting our political activities. You will face funding cuts from the government if you are carrying out activities during the week. That why you only see our activities at weekends," he said sorrowfully.

But another comrade who resettled in Australia and is now a business graduate suggested focusing on higher education rather than political activism. "You guys are only focusing on current politics rather than looking to the future rebuilding of the country. We all need to pursue higher education as this is what Burma is likely to need once the military falls," he said.

Although many exiles were students during the 8888 uprising, very few have completed further education. Not more than a dozen of exiles have gained a PhD, about three dozen have Masters degrees and about 100 have Bachelor degrees, while more than 10,000 other exiles have been wrapped up in their daily lives and have lacked the will or the means to pursue further education.

However, many former members of the ABSDF, including the three quoted above, are still sympathetic to the cause and continue to send donations to their comrades who are fighting in the border areas, as well as to activists in Rangoon and survivors of Cyclone Nargis.

But the question remains: is this a good enough way for an exile to bring democracy to their country? Is this what they dreamed of 20 years ago? Do they believe that these small-scale activities can press the military regime in Naypyidaw to change the situation in Burma?

No, no one believes that this is the way to change in Burma but they do not have much choice. If you look back further than 20 years, you will see another two generations of exiles in hiding. There are members of the People’s Patriotic Party led by former prime minister U Nu in the 1970s, now exiled in Thailand, India and the West, while hundreds of others from the Communist Party of Burma are now in China. The period since the September 2007 Saffron Revolution has seen the latest generation of exiles leave for Thailand and the West.

To conclude this discussion of exiles and their role in Burma's politics, let me quote two different views from leading politicians inside the country.

"We are in the same fight but in different tactical positions. We recognise their sacrifices and commitment to the revolution. We also praise their activities abroad, although we would never think of going into exile ourselves," said Ko Ko Gyi, a leading member of the 88 Generation Students group who is now in jail after playing a prominent role in last September's Saffron Revolution.

But U Lwin, a retired colonel who served as deputy prime minister during the late general Ne Win’s socialist regime and is now a leading member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, holds a different view.

"You guys in exile just criticise each other, criticise us, criticise everyone rather than do your job. If you are brave enough to fight the military government, please come here, don't just criticise from thousand of miles away. Then you will understand the real political situation that we face here every day."

Htet Aung Kyaw was one of the students involved in the 1988 uprising and is a former Student Army rebel. He is now working for the Oslo-Based Democratic Voice of Burma.

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