Burma: Life in the Hills

Students who fled the brutal crackdown on prodemocracy demonstrations last year have found a refuge of sorts among Burma’s ethnic insurgents

SEVERAL MONTHS AGO, just before the hrst of the student protests in China, I happened to be in a nearby part of the world—in Burma — where another upheaval had barely died down, The Burmese upheaval closely prefigured China‘s convulsions. In Burma, as in China, student demonstrations challenging a corrupt and repressive dictatorship had won broad popular support and threatened to sweep away the established order, only to be brutally put down.

Burma (which now calls itself Myanmar) was a democracy in the recent past. Following independence from Britain, in 1948, the country knew a version, though not exactly a Western version, of parliamentary democracy, under Prime Minister U Nu. This lasted until 1962, when a coup staged by the chief of staff of the armed forces, General Ne Win, introduced the socalled Burmese Way to Socialism.

The Burmese Way, with its xenophobia, its quixotic quest for total economic self-sufficiency, its ruthlessness, and its ineptitude, soon reduced a land of great natural wealth and ebullience to a wretch of a nation: backward, browbeaten, and isolated. Notwithstanding an abundance of natural resources—oil, teak, precious stones, and gold, among others—Burma has become one of the poorest countries in the world. It is deeply in debt. Informed observers estimate that about half its national budget is eaten up by an endless civil war waged against ethnic minorities and Communist insurgents in the countryside. Daily life is a struggle with shortages of every kind—of food, fuel, consumer goods, industrial equipment, cash. The only functioning economy is the black-market one.

In 1987, in official statements and through hurried attempts to “liberalize” the rice trade, the government admitted, at long last, that reforms were needed. More-widespread change was rumored. The country’s economy only worsened, however, and by early 1988 the increasing unrest brought on by this state of affairs led to scattered student protests in the capital city, Rangoon. In July, Ne Win suddenly announced his resignation as the rulingparty chairman. He also called for a referendum on ending single-party rule. Whether the shuffles within the junta after Ne Win‘s resignation speech were staged or reflected genuine internal confusion, three leaders rose in brisk succession from July to September of 1988. Meanwhile, all over the country student protesters were joined by crowds that thronged the streets of cities and towns, demanding democracy, free elections, and an end to oneparty rule.

Just when it seemed that the popular will could no longer be contained, the head of government, General Saw Maung, contained it. He called in light-infantry divisions drawn from regiments specializing in counterinsurgency, which led to a bloody confrontation. Troops opened fire on unarmed crowds and searched house to house for agitators, many of whom were summarily shot. Thousands of Burmese were killed, and thousands arrested. What began as the crackup of the Ne Win regime turned instead into the worst crackdown in Burma’s recent history.

FUGITIVES FROM the unrest, primarily dissident students but also some military personnel, had one important advantage over their Chinese counterparts: they had a place to go. They went by the thousands to the frontiers—to border lands that Burma shares with Bangladesh and India in the west and northwest, with China in the northeast, and with Laos and Thailand in the east and southeast. Along these borders ethnic insurgents have for forty years been in rebellion against the central Burmese government, making this struggle Asia’s oldest, if least-known, civil war. Trapped between Burma proper and her sovereign neighbors, many of these minorities have set up autonomous governments and turned the territories they control into mini-states.

At the height of the dissidents’ exodus from Rangoon, Mandalay, and elsewhere, as many as 8,000 to 10,000 young people lit out for the frontiers. Many have returned home by now: of these, some have gone underground, some have been arrested and, reportedly, tortured, and some have simply disappeared. Of those that remain on the frontiers—about 4,000—a few have been killed in battle and others have died of malaria and other tropical diseases. An increasing number have sought refugee status in neighboring countries. The Rangoon government has minimized the significance of the student guerrillas, claiming that they pose little military threat. This claim is at the moment probably true. But the students‘ very presence among the enemy rebels is an important development. For centuries ethnic Burmese in the nation’s heartland have despised the populous minority tribes along the frontiers. Now, for the first time, members of the Burman elite, with tics to urban opposition forces, are gaining intimate exposure to the hill peoples.

One third of Burma‘s population of roughly 40 million is made up of minority groups. They are culturally, linguistically, and religiously distinct, one from the other. The minorities occupy a third to a half of Burma’s territory. (Burma is about the size of England and France combined.) These minority homelands have never been easy for a central government to subjugate, much less unify. The British colonial rulers administered these regions separately from Burma proper.

During the negotiations for independence, the British and Burman leaders persuaded most of the minorities to join the Union of Burma. But it was a patchwork agreement, in which statehood within the union was granted to some groups but denied to others, or deferred. The matter of secession was handled similarly: the Slum and Karenni states, for example, were given the right to secede after ten years, but the Kachins were specifically denied this right. Not surprisingly, within months of independence a multitude of armed insurrections In Communists and disaffected minorities broke out across the land. By 1949 rebel forces had raised their flags over most of the country, with the important exception of Rangoon. Chaos reigned until the early 1950s, when the central government managed to regain the upper hand. Since then the minorities have continued to seek some sort of autonomy through force of arms. The heaviest recent fighting has taken place along the Thai border, where the central government, strapped for cash, wants to open up land to loggers from Thailand.

THE ETHNIC MINORITY group dominant in the region opposite Thailand’s Tak and Mae Hong Son provinces is the Karens, who make up about seven percent of Bur-

ma’s population. Since early this year Burmese government troops, frequently employing mortar shelling, have captured several major Karen rebel camps along a ten-mile stretch of border and have gained the central government its strongest foothold in the region in four decades.

The Karen National Union general headquarters is at Manerplaw, a settlement of teak and thatch bungalows on the jungled banks of the Moei River— part of the boundary between Burma and Thailand. In the dry season to reach Manerplaw from the Thai town of Mae Sot, which is about 250 miles northwest of Bangkok, requires a fivehour trek by road and river. The road journey crosses scores of shallow streams and dozens of narrow bamboo bridges. Then, from a landing that appears to be nothing more than a lumberyard, one embarks for a journey upriver.

I rode in a longboat filled with young Karen rebel soldiers carrying M-16s and trying to look fierce amid the peaceful, almost idyllic surroundings. Eventually the boat nosed up to a dock at the toot of a steep but well-worn path that led up a slope to what one Karen soldier called “the Pentagon of Free Karenland.”

I had arrived at a busy time, a time of meetings. Leaders and representatives of the larger minorities—the Arakanese, the Kachin, the Karen, the Karenni, the Lahu, the Mon, the Palaung, the Pa-O, the Shan, and the

Wa—and of some dissident Burman groups had come to hold discussions about almost everything. The AllBurma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), the umbrella organization of students at the border, was meeting in one bungalow; the National Democratic Front (NDF), a loose alliance of the major rebel organizations, in another; the Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB), a new coalition made up of the NDF and a number of other dissident organizations, inside and outside Burma, in a third. The NDF once maintained a separate pact with the Communist Party of Burma, which recently disintegrated after its ethnic-minority component overthrew the aging Burman Communist leadership and formed separate armies. While I was still struggling with the ABCs of factional politics, a DAB representative came to inform me that after my meetings with the ABSDF and the NDF, Brang Seng, the vice-chairman of the DAB and a leader of the NDF, would see me.

BRANG SENG, the leader of the Kuchins, who, like the Karens, are a powerful minority group, is a self-assured politician in his early fifties. Well-informed and well-traveled, he speaks fluent English and eloquent Burmese. A former principal of a school in his native Kachin State, in northern Burma, Brang Seng is now the chairman of the Kachin Independence Organization. The organization‘s 8,000 soldiers control a jade-rich 15,000-square-mile area. This is the largest rebel-administered region in Burma, with its own civil administration, schools, and hospitals. This region is also associated with the international opium trade, which is one reason why the Kachin rebels have received no assistance, overt or covert, from the United States.

Once the world‘s largest rice exporter, Burma is now the world‘s largest opium exporter. Some of this opium passes through the Kachin State and is taxed by the Kachin army. (The several occupying forces in this gray area all extract revenue from a freewheeling system of taxes and tolls on opium, and the Burma Army collects a 10 percent tax as well.) From 1974 until 1988, when U.S. aid to Burma was suspended after the disturbances, the United States gave the country some $5 million to $8 million a year for a drug-eradication program, which in recent years relied heavily on herbicidespraying.

Accòrding to people in the Shan and Kachin states, the Rangoon government has been spraying herbicides less on the poppy fields than on the food crops of the hill tribes. The more they ‘eradicate,‘ the more opium is grown,” Brang Seng said, by way of explaining the involvement of his people in opium cultivation. “Government troops go marauding into villages, the villagers run, the troops burn down the villages. Now the villagers driven into deeper jungle and steeper mountain areas become displaced people. Because food is their immediate problem, they plant a fast-growing crop. Rice takes a year, but poppy grows in four months. So they plant opium. But these opium-growers aren’t getting rich. They‘re looking for two meals a day. Opium should be eradicated, no question. But the only way to do it is by bringing peace to Burma.”

Meanwhile, Thai efforts to initiatepeace talks between the rebel minorities and the government were met by the latter with a stern rebuff: “We have already declared that there would be no more negotiations with the insurgents. We shall continue to tight them until they are totally eliminated.” The improbability of eliminating the rebels is nowhere more apparent than at Manerplaw, where rebellion has taken on a permanent, homey quality. During my visit I stayed in a guesthouse furnished with beds, pillows, mosquito nets, and a couple of heavy armoires, and employing a cook who had apprenticed at a big hotel in Rangoon.

ON NIGHT I was invited to dinner by the Karen leader. General Bo Mya, who commands a force of combat troops and village police that is said to number 8,000. Short and solidly built, with a belly the size of a prize watermelon, Bo Mya seems to enjoy his image as a direct, uncomplicated man with no claims to sophistication, no interest in speaking English, and no time for table manners. We sat with about ten others at a long table set up in the head office, while a battalion of orderlies hovered about. The menu featured cabbage soup, duck in oil, turkey in oil, duck eggs fried in oil, cauliflower and chicken in oil, and fish paste. My host ate with gusto, pointedly ignoring any attempts at small talk. He sucked, picked his teeth, and belched with authority. Afterward, swishing his hands in a bowl of water brought to his side by two young women, he turned to me with the air of a host proposing an after-dinner entertainment and offered to show me some prisoners of war whom he had been trying unsuccessfully to get the International Red Cross to take off his hands. (POWs are a rare and expensive liability in this particular civil war.) In the end I had to leave before seeing the prisoners, but I did get to spend the night at the WhiteHouse, as the Karens call the general‘s residence.

The stars were out, the crickets were out, and the jungle itself seemed to be panting as we climbed into a longboat: the general, his six bodyguards, my guide, and I. Arriving at a landing fifteen minutes later, we piled into a pickup truck that took us through the black night to the general’s bungalow, a slightly refined version of the ones at Manerplaw. A ghostly flicker illuminated one room as we climbed the stairs. It came from a television screen surrounded by a group of teenagers. Full Metal Jacket was being shown on a videocassette recorder.

The general’s wife — cheerful, plump, and munching betel nut — came to greet us. We sat on the plank floor of the living room, where the only chair was for the use of the general, and where the teenage army, after the movie, would sleep. Members of the 6th Brigade came along for a war council. They had changed from their uniforms into the long skirts called longyis that most Burmese wear. On the walls were an assortment of calendars and posters (some still in plastic wrap): Bible scenes, a Swiss chalet, a Hallmark sunset, a Japanese garden, a Dutch garden, the King and Queen of Thailand. And there was a cuckoo clock, which played “Freude, Schöner Götterfunken” and featured little dancing figures in dirndls and lederhosen. It was a pleasant incongruity, like one version of the Karen national anthem, which is sung to the tune of “Dili Marlene.” Early the next morning no teenagers remained in the living room: the group had risen at dawn for their dryseason daily routine of collecting thatch from the hills. But Bo Mya was sitting on the floor, feeding a bottle to his infant grandson, who had been up all night with a fever. The baby’s father, Bo Mya’s son-in-law, had been killed in battle a few months before.

Battles and bottles, cuckoo clocks and war councils—the decades-old rebellion, with its routine of killing and being killed, had become a way of life. The front had become, simply, home.

FARTHER DOWN THE Thai border, at Three Pagodas Pass, a border crossing about 180 miles northwest of Bangkok, near the River Kwai, some 300 students had embarked on such a way of life. Emerging into the afternoon haze from their thatch-andbamboo huts—marching and charging about in the killing heat with sticks instead of guns, slogging through mud in bare feet or rubber flipflops—these would-be guerrillas brought to mind not so much a training camp as a refugee camp. They were eager, however, to tell visitors that food, water, and medicines were not what was most on their minds. At a meeting between students and two representatives of a Catholic relief agency, with whom I‘d shared a ride from Bangkok, the camp leader, a slight, soft-spoken fellow with soulful eyes and the wispy beard of an Oriental scholar, answered questions about the camp’s basic requirements almost distractedly. The relief people asked about the food situation, the health situation, and so on. What did the students need most? “An F-16,” said one of the dozen or so bystanders who had squeezed their way into the hut to observe the interview.

The students are not heavily armed, to say the least. For many, the struggle against the regime has boiled down to a struggle for survival. Those students who have seen combat have done so primarily by joining the ranks of the minority insurgents.

“Oh, those kids! What trouble they gave at first!” said a toothless old matriarch in a Karen village, recalling the early days of the student invasion. “Feeding them was no joke. The way we all pitched in, taking turns day and night! The chopping and the frying and the washing! The piles and pots of food that got eaten! And the little fools had the gall to complain! Not out loud—they wouldn’t dare. But I overheard whispers about how our food wasn‘t up to standard. The superior Burmese! I said. Look here, you little sons of bitches, you come here with nothing more than your”—here she went through a rich array of synonyms for the male and female sex organs— “and you belittle our food? That shut them up. But we liked feeding them. They’re kids. Who begrudges feeding kids?”

After huts had been built and a system of food procurement and distribution set Lip, other tensions arose. “We give them shelter, we feed them,” said a Karen liaison officer in Mae Sot. “We hardly have enough for ourselves! ‘We want military training,’ they say. So we give them training. ‘We want to fight,’ they say. So we send them to the front. But when the Burmese start pounding on them, they turn and run into our arms, and we have to stand behind them, so to speak.”

Few of the students I talked to were willing to admit to having had any serious conflicts with their minority hosts. The student leaders in particular were eager in their expressions of gratitude for Karen help. But a young Burmese volunteer worker at one of the camps told me, “They don’t dare say it, but they’re still pretty scared of what the Karens might do to them. Rumors spread from camp to camp about how the Karens have been using students for slave labor and cannon fodder instead of training them, and that creates even more distrust and fear.”

Students who have crossed the border into Thailand are also at the mercy of Thai politicians—a fact made painfully plain a year ago, when about 300 students were returned to Burmese authorities under a short-lived official “repatriation” program. The move had everything to do with trade negotiations taking place between Thailand and Burma at the time. Not much is known about the fate of these deportees, or of the many more who have since been pushed back into Burma by Thai officials.

For the thousands of students now remaining at the border, setbacks multiply daily. Worn out by the futility and hardship of life in the bush—no one escapes malaria, for a start—increasing numbers have crossed over into Thai towns to seek work as illegal immigrants or to appeal for refugee status.

Reluctant to set yet another refugee quota, the United States has been slow to accept Burmese refugees. “The students are not that badly off,” a State Department official in Washington says. “They have de facto if not de jure residency in Thailand.” But under congressional pressure this attitude may be changing into a more sympathetic one.

As for the Thai authorities, in light of the newly flourishing trade between Thailand and Burma, there is reason to expect that they will continue to act as if their interest in human rights were not nearly so acute as their interest in logging and fishing rights.

SOON A FTER MY trip to Three Pagodas Pass, I boarded a truck bound for another student camp, farther north at Thay Baw Bo, where conditions, I’d heard, were considerably more dismal. At dawn the next morning a heavy mist parted to reveal a village of huts with disintegrating thatch or roots of blue plastic sheets in shreds. And yet the students trained and trained, running laps around a clearing that looked like a huge septic field, doing jumping jacks, scaling makeshift ladders, crawling on their bellies, and playing at war with astounding energy. The training officers who shouted out orders were former members of one branch or another of the Burma Defense Services. Watching these exercises from a hut were three youngish pongyis, or Burmese monks. T he pongyis were very much in evidence during the strikes anti demonstrations last year, shouting slogans, shaking fists, waving banners, and helping and hiding student activists.

As the day wore on, it struck me that despite the squalor--the appalling stench from the open holes in the ground that served as latrines, the blighted huts, the shivering victims of malaria and typhoid—and the sense of wasted effort and futility, there was a certain good humor to the scene. True to student tradition, there was also continual conversation about politics: about the unlikely prospects for elections, and about opposition leaders in Rangoon.

The most prominent opposition figure is Aung San Sun Kyi, the fortyfour-year-old Oxford-educated daughter of General Aung San, who brokered Burma’s independence only to be assassinated on its eve. Openly critical and defiant of the current regime (she has been placed under house arrest), the charismatic Aung San Sun Kyi is the secretary-general of the National League for Democracy, a loose coalition of parties that claims more than a million members. The government has announced plans to hold elections next spring, but nobody believes that the elections will be free and fair, if they come about at all. The terms of the new election law could disqualify from candidacy most of the major contenders among the opposition (who in any event happen to be under arrest); and there are no provisions for neutral supervision of the elections. Even if elections do take place, there are no assurances of a transfer of power, since these elections would be not for a parliament but for an unspecified assembly charged with drafting a new constitution, which would then have to be approved. Until then—however long it takes—the military would remain in power. In a new round of repression begun in July, more than a thousand dissidents have been jailed, and many dissidents have been tortured to death.

Besides the elections, shoptalk at Thay Baw Bo touched on urban versus jungle guerrilla tactics (most students favored blowing up military bases and key installations in the towns, or assassinating high-ranking army officers, over conducting traditional jungle warfare) and on what it would take to topple Rangoon (“Just an F-16 and a million dollars, no more!”). One of the leaders, a former chemistry teacher, said, “America has always preached democracy. But now that we are fighting so hard to get democracy, we can’t get any help. They help the contras; why can’t they help us?” It was true, they admitted, that Congress had made strong statements in support of the “democratic aspirations of the Burmese.” It was true that Washington had cut off aid to the Burmese regime— about $14 million worth in 1988, half of it for development programs, half for narcotics control. And owing in large measure to the efforts of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Representative Stephen Solarz, Congress has authorized a small amount of humanitarian aid for the students. But the United States has not provided the wherewithal for overthrowing the current regime. Nor, for that matter, has any other nation.

An American economist who is well informed about Burmese affairs recently said to me, “There has always been something about the Burman that wants an uncle, someone on the outside, to do something he can’t get done. But the time has come now when he has to do for himself. ”

THOSE WORKING for a change of regime in Burma, perhaps even for democracy—the opposition leaders, the underground activists, the fugitive students, the minority armies—are doing for themselves. But a happier lot for Burma depends on more than self-reliance. It depends largely on whether the many groups involved in the opposition effort are all propelled along the same road. Unity has never been a strong suit of the Burmese. The only example of unified strength, sadly, is the Burma Army, which, despite rumors of pervasive demoralization and internal strife, remains a force to be reckoned with. It may be, then, that a dangerous, contingent life in the hills, which has long been the reality for the Karens, the Kachins, and others, is the future that awaits the fugitive students as well.

&emdash;Wendy Law-Yone