Burmese student rebels—1989

Burmese student rebels and Karen soldiers along the Thai-Burmese border in 1989
Text and pictures: ©SJON HAUSER
Text from: Sjon Hauser, Burmaanse studenten voeren guerrilla [Burman students opt for guerrilla warfare], onzeWereld, September 1989. Translated from Dutch.

Most pictures are taken in the Thay Baw Boe Camp, in March and April, 1989. The camp was across the border in Karen controlled Burma, not far from Walay in Tak’s Phop Phra district.

In the shadow of a bamboo grove Htu Htu is smoking a green Burmese cigar. He stares to the girls in front of the women’s shed, who are singing Burman songs while cleaning the dishes. He had just finished turning the pages of a little photo album with pictures taken on an illegal trip of students from the camp to Bangkok. A foreign NGO had invited them and had treated them to a boat trip on the Chao Phraya river. Other pictures showed the students in the NGO’s office, being interviewed on the situation in Burma and life in the camps, while they were sunken away in huge leather easy-chairs.
Just five days ago, Htu Htu had made a decision that would change his life. Together with three friends from Rangoon he boarded the train to Moulmein. From Moulmein, they crossed the forests for four days, in their checkered longyi and wearing their rubber slippers. At last they arrived at the Thai border where they joined the about one thousand revolting students that had been accommodated in the Thay Baw Boe Camp—just one of the twenty border camps where some ten thousand Burmese students have taken refuge following the coup of 18 September 1988.

rebels-01■1. Htu Htu, a fresh arrival in Thay Baw Boe. ■2-3. Other student rebels at Thay Baw Boe Camp.

Htu Htu was borne in 1989, when dictator Ne Win had been Burma’s strongman already for seven years. For 27 years, Burma had been tightly controlled by the military—ironically dubbed Burma’s Green Revolution. Htu Htu is sure that Ne Win still holds the reins, despite a series of demonstrations the previous year that had forced him to step down as president of the country’s only political party, the Burmese Socialist Program Party.
Ne Win’s resignation failed to halt the demonstrations. At last, a bloody coup led by general Saw Maung made an end to the unrest. Saw Maung had always been a loyal servant to Ne Win, but he promised elections to prepare Burma for democracy. With a better future on the agenda, Htu Htu became an activist in a grass root organization. But soon his optimism was shattered following frequent intimidation by the military. Then the elections were re-scheduled, to be hold not before May 1990—another blow to the reform-minded. The option of a neutral interim government, as was favored by most Burmese, wasn’t considered by Saw Maung for a moment. In March, there were new waves of arrests, while Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the largest opposition party, was threatened with death by an army captain. By now it was evident that democracy in Burma could not be achieved peacefully. ‘For us the fight with peaceful means had come to an end,’ Htu Htu says.
Just before his flight to the jungle, Htu Htu had witnessed Ne Win’s first public appearance since the coup. It was a sign that the military feels confident again, as Burma is not anymore in the limelight of the international press.
‘Ne Win is worse than Hitler,’ Htu Htu put it, ‘because he kills his own people. Saw Maung is a faithful servant of this tyrant, just like Sein Lwin, a stupid shoeshine boy who had attended primary school no longer than a few years. Due to his absolute obedience and loyalty to Ne Win, he could rise to the top of the leadership!’

rebels-02■ (Left): Aung Lwin, ‘student leader’ at Thay Baw Boe Camp.

Htu Htu’s diatribe against the regime in Rangoon is interrupted by the groans of a boy who suffers a severe bout of malaria. The ailing boy is carried away to the shed for the sick, his shirt and longyi wet from profusely sweating.

‘In a few weeks you will all suffer from malaria,’ Aung Lwin informs the newcomers. Aung Lwin is the ‘student leader’ of Thay Baw Boe Camp. When I met him three months ago, he had praised a Gandhi-style approach for Burma’s problems. Not long afterwards, the army attacked the camp, but thanks to the protection of the Karen rebel army—the forces of an ethnic group fighting for autonomy for more than forty years—a massacre in the camp was averted. Elsewhere the government army’s offensive was successful. Students who fled into the jungle following the siege of their camp were not spared by Saw Maung’s soldiers.
‘So fighting against them is the only way to survive,’ Aung Lwin concludes, ‘and the search for an appropriate ideology for Burma should be postponed for a while.’

A good number of the students in Thay Baw Boe have already completed a military training. Aung Lwin leads us to Camp 3. To get there, we have to follow a path trough the forest. In open areas, smoke arises from earthen mounds in which the students are burning wood. The charcoal is a major source of their income and is collected by Thai trucks.
We arrive at a checkpoint where a Karen boy not older than twelve is branding a HK 33 and apathetically raises the barrier.

In Camp 3 some hundred students are resting or hanging around in the bamboo sheds. They are armed and can be send to the front at any time. ‘To which front is unknown,’ Aung Lwin explains, who belongs to this group himself. ‘That remains a secret, as it is not impossible that a spy is among the students. Burma’s secret service is the country’s only organization that functions efficiently!’
Camps such as Thay Baw Boe are usually called ‘student camps’ but in fact there are many non-students among the men.
For instance, Maung Maung is a young farmer. He is just getting into his battle outfit and wishes to be photographed while carrying a heavy gun on his shoulder. He had joined the resistance together with his brother. When the military were informed about the reasons why they had left home, they revenged their action by expelling their family from the village. This kind of retaliations is so much feared, that most students refrain from sending signs of being alive to their homes. The student units are commanded by former officers, who had deserted from the Burmese army. Camp commander Aung Naing is one of them. He had fled to a Karen camp as he could not stand it any having to work for an organization that kills innocent people. At present, student units are set off to the battle zone more frequently, usually under joint command of Karen units.
(to be continued)

For the complete story, download PDF (for free) here:  Burmaanse-studenten-voeren-guerrilla-1989 (Dutch version only)

rebels-09Thay Baw Boe Camp, April, 1989. 1. The Camp Captain of the Karen Liberation Army. 2. Sick student in the hospital shed.