Many fighting Burma’s repressive rule have fled to the Thai border town of Mae Sot. Only China and India can pressure the Burmese regime into reform, but that in turn requires pressure from the international community, which continues to drag its feet
For three days Htay Aung was blindfolded, forced to crouch low, balance on the balls of his feet and place his hands behind his neck in a military intelligence (MI) interrogation camp in Burma’s former capital Rangoon. Then the questions would start. “Why did you get involved in political activities?” “What were you doing?” “Who else is helping you?” He gave the wrong answer: “Which students have you arrested?” Then the blows rained down on him, as MI officers beat him with aluminium and rubber truncheons on his calves and back. This was 20 years ago when he was a student leader in the country’s 1988 mass pro-democracy uprisings.
Then one morning in August 1989, seven plain-clothes Special Branch police officers came to Htay Aung’s home in Rangoon. He was handcuffed, blindfolded and taken to an interrogation camp. “I fell down a few times when I was forced to stand in that position. They would not let me sleep, eat or drink water. It was like that for three days. For the first two days, they would not let me go to the toilet. I never told them who I was helping on the outside. That time, they did not torture me too much.”
After three days of beatings and interrogation, Htay Aung was transferred to Insein prison, a maximum-security facility and the largest of Burma’s jails in Rangoon.
“There was no time allowed outside the cell. We were not allowed any newspapers, paper or pens. When the prison guards went outside, I would talk to the other political prisoners in the other cells,” he adds. Then one day, after two months in a windowless cell with a hole-in-the-ground lavatory, he was released without explanation or trial.
The beatings and detention had little effect. If anything, Htay Aung’s resolve to protest against Burma’s military dictatorship grew and he continued to work for the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), the underground nationwide student group that had spearheaded the 1988 uprisings. That cost him more than a decade in prison: he was re-arrested three times in 1990 and twice in 1996. “I was taken to the same camp, and to Insein, and had the same torture. They were becoming like second homes to me, the camp and the prison. I got to see my old friends in prison. We didn’t want to be beaten or to be arrested or to die. It’s normal to feel fear. I felt afraid [but] some of our friends were missing, some arrested, some were beaten. We knew that if our country had democracy, these horrible things would not happen.”
His determination to fight for democracy brought him under the scrutiny of the MI again in 2007. It was after that, fearing re-arrest, that he fled Burma last November and crossed illegally into Thailand. It was a self-enforced exile that led him to his new home in the Thai border town of Mae Sot.
Htay Aung, now 45, was one of the lucky few: he managed to escape. The continued detention and recent trial of Burma’s most famous political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Laureate and leader of the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has helped train the world’s gaze onto thousands of other dissidents currently in jail in Burma. Currently the number of long-term political prisoners – more than 2,000, according to Amnesty International – is the highest the country has seen since at least 1988.
The Moei river cuts along the western flank of Mae Sot, on Thailand’s western border with Burma. The “friendship bridge” with its guards and immigration offices is the official artery into Thailand, across the water from the Burmese town of Myawaddy. Visitors from Burma are issued with day passes when the crossing opens daily from 6am to 6pm. Others leave as long-term migrants looking for work and a better life. But trickles of former political prisoners like Htay Aung also slip across unofficially, like quicksilver, hoping to recast their futures in a foreign land.
Mae Sot is a town that sprang to life as a trading post between the two countries in the 1990s after Burma’s military regime legalised cross-border trade. Burmese migrants soon began to leave for the town, a hub where gems and teak from one of the world’s most oppressive dictatorships are siphoned onto the international market. Most of its 150,000 people are Burmese migrants, refugees – and those on the payroll of the Burmese MI.
“They’re here. I don’t know how many, mostly informers. They know where I am and what I am doing,” says Bo Kyi, 44. He likes to smoke cheroots and smokes at least four in our first three-hour talk, hunting around amid paperwork for a lighter. Tucked away in offices in a residential part of town, Bo Kyi runs the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). The human rights group has campaigned for the release of Burma’s political prisoners, monitored their well-being and provided advice to their families since 2000. Their plight is all the more poignant for Bo Kyi as he was imprisoned by the junta for being a student leader in the 1988 revolutionary uprisings (1).
Bo Kyi recalls: “I was frightened… I knew if I was lucky I would stay alive but I also knew that I would be arrested sooner or later.” And so he was: three times by the MI, in 1989, then 1990 and 1994. The first time, Bo Kyi escaped and was on the run. But his luck ran out in 1990 and he was arrested. On 2 April 1990 he appeared before a closed military court, under Burma’s 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, in Insein prison and was convicted.
“In the court, the military officer asked me one question: ‘Did you commit any crime?’. I replied: ‘Absolutely not’. He replied: ‘Three years’ imprisonment with hard labour’. I had no lawyer, no family members there and no judges, just three military officers, one each from the army, navy and air force. I expected more than three years. I expected 10 or 20 years,” Bo Kyi laughs. He served his sentence in Insein and Mandalay prisons before being released on his 28th birthday.
But his refusal to be silenced led him to resume pro-democracy campaigning after his release and he was arrested and imprisoned in 1994 for five years again under the Emergency Provisions Act. It was a sacrifice he was willing to make: “We wanted to change the political system into a democratic one. We wanted freedom. As young people we could not read political books. We were not allowed to talk about politics or criticise the government.”
The stories Htay Aung and Bo Kyi narrate are all the more compelling because they are neither unusual nor relics of the past. Tales of courage, appalling mistreatment and suffering follow many of Mae Sot’s Burmese like shadows, tying them to their homeland, their pasts and their futures.
Thousands of dissidents remain in detention in Burma. The AAPP estimates around 10,000 former political prisoners still live inside Burma and continue to face the threat of imprisonment. Burma’s Prisons and Labour Camps: Silent Killing Fields, a new report released in May by the AAPP, says political prisoners in Burma are routinely tortured. It says: “Torture is state policy in Burma, and common practice at interrogation centres and prisons. Common forms of torture include sleep deprivation, beatings and stress positions.” The document catalogues the horrific conditions dissidents are held in, denied access to legal representation and medical treatment and often transferred to prisons hundreds of miles away from their families.
It is clear that Burma’s regime is tightening its stranglehold over its people. The past years have seen dissidents in custody face the growing prospect of having their sentences extended and those facing trial now are more likely to receive long sentences. Only last November more than 200 people were sentenced to prison terms of between 65 and 104 years each. The junta has also introduced a neighbourhood watch system where ordinary people are coerced to form committees and spy on their neighbours.
The policy is not just a continuation of the regime’s crackdown since the saffron revolution in 2007 (2), when more than 4,000 people were rounded up after thousands of laypeople and monks took to the streets to demand democratic and economic reforms. It is also a means to ensure elections scheduled to take place next year progress trouble-free and is an attempt by the junta to smother a growing human rights movement inside Burma.
The Orwellian methods the regime is using to frighten its 58 million people appear to be working. According to Bo Kyi: “Burma is becoming more repressive. They are trying to create a climate of fear… The junta is [also] scared: 2007 was the worst in terms of Burma’s history; even monks were beaten and arrested. Now people are silenced because of the climate of fear. But they cannot repress all the time. They cannot arrest or kill all the opposition. [But] the main concept will not change and the repression will not stop. It’s systematic; political prisoners being arrested, detained and tortured.”
Not always thus
If Burma’s recent history reads like a glossary of human rights abuses, it wasn’t always like this. When Burma freed itself from British rule in 1948 with Burmese revolutionary and Suu Kyi’s father Bogyoke Aung San at the helm, the Union of Burma was born and the country became an independent, democratic republic. Its people had high hopes. All that changed in 1962 when General Ne Win seized power in a violent coup and established a socialist military government. The generals were hell bent on the “Burmese way to socialism” – a disastrous mix of political and economic policies that propelled Burma into poverty and repression.
So began the nation’s downward spiral as the junta began to implement increasingly isolationist political and economic policies and deprived its people of democracy, human rights, free speech, education and healthcare.
The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), formed in 1997, continued mishandling the economy, which has led to widespread suffering for ordinary people. While neighbouring countries such as Thailand, China and India have witnessed economic growth, the junta’s economic isolation and mismanagement means the average Burmese is no better off now than 20 years ago, earning less than a dollar a day (GDP is $286 per head per year). The regime has shown exactly how it plans to invest in its future, spending around $330m a year on its military, more than four times the amount it invests annually on education and healthcare combined.
Profits from natural gas, Burma’s biggest export, have also fallen thanks to the worldwide financial slowdown. Economists predict Burma will this year earn around $1bn from gas exports, almost all exported to Thailand, down from $2bn last year. Money from sales of beans and pulses, mostly to India, has also fallen.
The 1988 uprising and the 2007 demonstrations were largely fuelled by a demand for economic, as well as political, changes after spiralling inflation meant ordinary Burmese people could no longer make ends meet. The thread that tied, and continues to bind, politics and human rights together is the dismal state of the country’s economy. Those trying to improve the nation’s appalling human rights track record can ill afford to ignore this. Similarly, the international community, including the US, the EU, the UN, Asean (Association of South East Asian Nations), China and India, have to accept that economic and diplomatic pressure must underpin any influence they exert over the SPDC to reform.
The recent increase in political repression in Burma and Suu Kyi’s trial show that the SPDC is not willing to relent, and that international policy in pushing the regime to change has largely failed. Neither the Asian countries’ policy of engagement nor the West’s hardball approach of isolation and sanctions has worked; an overhaul of international policy on Burma has never been more pressing.
China and – to a lesser extent – India and Russia are the key players at the centre of this mess and the only governments that can initiate concrete progress. China is Burma’s biggest military, political and economic ally – the largest supplier of weapons to the regime (3). Sources say it has sold Burma millions of dollars’ worth of arms, including tanks, armoured personal carriers, military aircraft and anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns to Burma. But India, Russia, Serbia and the Ukraine also sell weapons to the junta.
Criticism watered down
China’s economic footprint in Burma is also growing. In the past several years, Beijing has invested billions of dollars in huge natural gas, oil, hydropower and mining projects in resource-rich Burma by signing up to more than 90 lucrative deals with the SPDC. China is also the biggest exporter of consumer goods into Burma.
It’s no surprise then that Beijing and Moscow continue to protect Burma in the international political arena. China and Russia vetoed a draft UN Security Council resolution put forward by the US and UK in 2007 that would have called on the junta to ease political repression and the persecution of ethnic minorities. On 22 May the UN Security Council issued a watered-down statement expressing its concern over the impact Suu Kyi’s continued detention and trial may have on stability in the region; after China and Russia protested, this fell short of openly condemning Burma.
At this stage, Beijing has no desire to push the SPDC to implement change and has been selective in its use of influence over Burma in recent years. China, itself not a democracy, is fearful of the junta being forced to loosen its grip or being overthrown. Democracy in Burma would not suit Beijing, particularly as parts of restive western China border Burma. On the other hand, too much repression in Burma could lead to greater economic hardship, instability and internal conflict – the last thing China wants if it is to protect its investments, establish a stable Burmese market dependent on Chinese imports and protect a growing ethnic Chinese population in Burma. Nor does India want to see too much repression: as China’s main rival, it is also courting the SPDC as it vies for Burma’s huge reserves of gas and oil to meet its growing energy needs.
While the US and EU recently extended sanctions against the junta, and Asean and the UN Security Council took the unusual step of publicly condemning Suu Kyi’s trial, the international community has done little to corner China and India, to get them to pressure Burma’s generals.
Benjamin Zawacki, Burma researcher at Amnesty International, says: “Until and unless they release all the political prisoners, nothing said by the regime can be trusted; that’s when we will see whether or not any increased pressure has had any effect. The lynch pin in that is China. The Indians could also apply pressure [but] India has shown itself to be patently unhelpful. It never tires of saying that it is the world’s largest democracy, yet its democratic and human rights credentials with regards to Burma are shameful. Individual Indian MPs have spoken up on behalf of Aung San Suu Kyi [but] India has remained completely silent over the last few weeks.”
Nyo Ohn Myint, spokesman for the NLD-in-exile in Thailand, agrees the West must push China and India to pressure the SPDC, but also called for the NLD to engage in dialogue with the regime’s generals. He adds: “We need some kind of roadmap. The EU, US, Asean, India and China should sit together. They should directly talk to the Chinese and show that it could be a ‘win-win’ situation because otherwise, the Chinese will go their own way and the EU and the West will go the other way and the suffering for the people of Burma will continue. Regional countries also suffer because of the SPDC. Burma is a failed state. We have no negotiators inside Burma who are willing to talk to the generals and the regime is very tight; none of the generals wanted to talk with the NLD. Members of the NLD inside Burma should be more flexible, engage in dialogue. We need trust-building on every level between the two camps.”
Sources have confirmed senior Chinese officials have visited Burma in recent weeks to try to coax the regime to improve human rights and that the NLD has held unofficial talks with Asean member states and officials from Beijing to try to break the deadlock, but with little luck.
While Beijing and New Delhi score political and diplomatic points off each other in a bid to woo Burma’s generals and the international community drags its feet, the resulting political impasse will guarantee only one thing; that Burma’s future, in line with its recent history, will be pockmarked with tragedy and bloodshed.
Nine years inside
A world away from the seats of power in Washington, Brussels and Beijing, at Um Phien refugee camp – one of Thailand’s nine temporary holding camps for official Burmese refugees – former political prisoner Thiha Aung sits cross-legged on the floor of the two-room hut that has been his home since he left Burma in December 2006.
His blue-and-white-checked longyi only partly covers the scars on his legs, daily reminders of the beatings meted out to him almost two decades ago. They were the price he had to pay when Burma’s MI discovered he was campaigning for the ABFSU and was a member of the NLD. Thiha Aung, 45, was arrested seven times between 1987 and 1996, spending almost nine years in police and MI custody or in Insein Prison.
His detention cost him his marriage to his wife Tin Tin Aung, 42, when she remarried in Rangoon in 2000, and time with his three daughters. “I wanted to change the government, I wanted to sacrifice my life for the people,” he says. “But it was very difficult to meet my wife and my daughters. My wife remarried as I always did the protests. I was always close to jail, so I could not take care of my family. But I loved my wife. I still love my wife.
“But Burma will never change. The military government doesn’t want to change so I think Burma ’s political situation will never change. If I go back to Burma now, they will arrest me for sure and it will be a big sentence. I can never go back.”
A two-hour bus journey north of Mae Sot, the camp is a ramshackle collection of wooden huts that is home to around 20,000 Burmese on a mountainside barely 30 kilometres from the Burma border. The dry season is on the brink of the monsoon. Recent rain has made the air sultry. Many of Um Phien’s refugees eke out livings collecting and selling firewood or as daily wage labourers on nearby farms. They rely on food rations from NGOs. The camp seems a self-contained idyllic rural community, with shops, primary and secondary schools. But the barbed wire and the camp authority office that guards it puts paid to the veneer of normality. Families are not allowed to leave the camp without permission from the camp and the Thai authorities.
Thiha Aung has built himself a new life as a refugee in Thailand, teaching the camp’s children English. He recently remarried. His wife Mange, 38, stands beside him. He cradles his newborn son Htet Thida Zaw in his arms and stares out of the one glassless window in his home. Outside, storm clouds hang low, threatening another downpour.