By Kanbawza Win
These words were taken from a poem by our beloved Bogyoke Aung San, father of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, during his university days when Burma was struggling against the British imperialism. Originating from the mythical bird Phoenix of Chinese, Egyptian, Russian and America’s first nations traditions, the architect of the modern Burma has skilfully designed it into a fighting peacock (Peacock at that time was the emblem of Burman/Myanmar nationalist), obviously no self style Farang Burmese expert could comprehend and often describe this flag of a strange bird. This mystical bird never die, it flies far ahead to the front, always scanning the landscape and distance space. It represents our capacity for vision, for collecting sensory information about the environment and the event unfolding within it. The bird with its great beauty creates intense excitement and deathless inspiration. This is the emblem of the Burmese students which keep on struggling, first against the colonialist, then against the military dictatorships and later was adopted by the pro democracy movement led by NLD. They have struggled all these ages, generations by generation and are bound to continue the struggle against this evil government.
In 1962, I was a young boy residing in Taungoo Hall and knew nothing about politics and clearly recollect of how after a hard study in our hostel, we got hungry and about midnight or so often went out to have a snack. But one day I was rather upset when the law was enforced on the hostel that nobody must go out after 9 PM, which later became the embryo of the 7th July incident. At that time I did not know that the order came from the Revolutionary Council itself, to provoke the students to confrontation, so that they could find a pretext to crack down on the students and close the University which they construed as a hot bed for dissidents.
Starting with this discontentment of the hostel rules, there was a peaceful demonstration in the Rangoon University campus, on the evening of 5th July, it gathered momentum the next day and suddenly the security personal showed up and fired tear gas into the peaceful students. If it were hand thrown tear gas it would have caused no harm, but it was shot from an ejector and one of the projectiles hit the groin of Sai Yi Leik, one of my bosom friends from Taunggyi, who had to be hospitalized (he died in Singapore and could not bear any children because of the wound).
This action provoked the entire student body that now came out en-mass and shouted slogans in the campus. The next day, 7th July the army commanded by Brigadier Sein Lwin, better known as the butcher, surrounded the University. Some students from Mandalay Hall facing the University Student’s Union were teasing the soldiers, while those near the students were making friends with the soldiers saying that we were making a peaceful protest. But Ne Win and the Junta had already made the fatal decision to wipe out the students dissidents once and for all.
Suddenly without any warning butcher Sein Lwin gave the signal and the solders started shooting at us at point blank range. Those in front were cut down while some soldiers took aim at the students on Mandalay Hall and shot them indiscriminately like birds, one after another falling down from the verandas of the hostel. Kyaw Lin, the younger brother of Kyaw Min, was hit and yelled for his brother who came and helped him as another bullet hit him right in the chest and the two brothers died instantly in each others arms.
The next day we woke up to a very big explosion only to discover that the Student’s Union was blown up with the student’s hardliners who refused to leave the buildings. The body count by a passerby put the toll at 137, but the Junta say that the causalities were only seven.
These are some of the horrific scenes still in my eyes and both Ne Win and Sein Lwin are now suffering in hell by whatever religion they profess. But since then, the military dictatorship in Burma has closed the universities and until 1988 revolution when all university education was closed down for nearly a decade. The prolonged closure of Universities has affected the future of almost all the young people of Burma. Now we clearly know that successive military Juntas deliberately targeted the University education, the future brain of the country, as only then, they can control the country.
It is over half a century that these men in uniform are in power and with the new flawed election and an equally dubious Constitution; they will continue to rule the country in different guise. There may be very few surviving 7th July students as most of them are like me are septuagenarian or octogenarian if not nonagenarian, however the 7th July spirit of resistance will continue generations by generations until the dictatorship is over thrown for even though our heads are bloody yet we are unbowed.
Seeing the Arab people struggles in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and the likes I cannot keep wondering of whether we are a nation of cowards, and the people of Burma are destined to be the slaves of the military and that the universal truth of no people can be hold bondage forever is not applicable in Burma? Gone are the revolutionary songs when we used to sing Ba Ma That Tii Ka Ba Thi Aung Nga Doe Pya Tha Mye indicating we will show our bravery to the world at large when Bogyoke Aung San was alive and inspired us to new holistic heights. Now after more than half a century we have become a nation of despair because we are not united.
There are a number of shared societal traits between Burma and Arab countries on the brink of government collapse––from social inequality to soaring unemployment and underemployment; from pervasive corruption to entrenched economic cronyism. Libya’s Colonel Gadaffi, has long held power justifying that without his regime the country would evolve into a state of civil war portending the eventual dissolution of the state as a single entity, just like what the Burmese Generals are echoing today. In Syria the present threat to Assad’s government, assisted by such social factors as lack of opportunity for the country’s youth, comprising 56 percent of the population, comes under the banner of direct democracy is the same condition as in Burma. In Egypt, the strong identity bond between the nationalist military and party-leader was held in the face of the disenfranchised majority.
So, what about Burma? Until a few months ago, Burma was, akin to Libya, a party-less state, with Senior-General Than Shwe standing unopposed at the helm since 1992. However, the fake election and subsequent convening of Parliament witnessed the birth of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. How do we face this challenge when our neighbouring countries are all backing the military for obvious economic and strategic reasons?
Burma’s 2007 Saffron Revolution witnessed throngs of monks at the fore of mass protests, but today, Burma’s monkhood remains under close surveillance by authorities keen to prevent further challenges to the country’s socio-political complexion. Even though Buddhism in Burma and the Islamic identity in Arab states are distinctly woven into the cultural and political fabric of their respective peoples Burmese Theravada Buddhism is more pacifist then Islam. Besides this the Burmese populace is confronted by an even tighter social environment than that experienced by many Middle Eastern citizens.
Even though the hope or external intervention on humanitarian ground has taken into account, such as NATO in Bosnia and Kosovo, Australia in East Timor, the United States in Haiti and the United Kingdom in Sierra Leone and an international force currently in Libya, it does not fall well in Burma. None of the Asian countries like India and China, and ASEAN have the humanitarian aspects and besides the United States is already involved in two wars, Iraq and Afghanistan. A third war and its entailing tertiary costs are potentially politically unsustainable making a distant possibility as even now President Obama has just announced to step up withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Burma is unique and the Burmese people are destined to find their own way. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has clearly indicated it, her unconditional support of the Arab spring a clear indication for the people to do likewise, what more message do we want?
The people of Burma must clearly see the writing on the wall. She has just delivered the message at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific urging US lawmakers to support the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) by the United Nations into gross human rights violations in Burma. Suu Kyi also pointedly asked why the new quasi civilian government, “If it is sincere in its claims that it wishes to bring democracy into Burma, there is no need for any prisoners of conscience to exist in this country.” These are clear challenges to the Junta and its proxy and we must rally behind her, no matter what creed or colour. No doubt she can be arrested again, if not killed outright under the pretext of a mechanized accident. The authentic proof that a new government, which has a civilian curb is just like an old wine in new bottle can be seen when it breaks the ceasefire agreement and launches an attack on the Kachin making it the heaviest fighting in 17 years sending 20,000 refugees to a neighbouring China. It is time to rise up.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi also has said that, the strength is within the country and rest with the people. In answering to a question, at a concealed site in Rangoon, to selected listeners at a BBC studio in central London stated that Mahatma Gandhi as the father of non-violence, if given the choice between cowardice and violence, he will go for violence. This is the clear message to the people to make preparation for the ultimate battle for she have tried all possible peaceful means for more than two decades and there is no choice left but to fight the vehemently hated regime. She is silently whispering in the ears of the entire people to rise up and be like the Arabs. What are we waiting for if we are not cowards?
What is to be feared? It is far better to die fighting than to live on our knees and we have live long enough believing that reason, rationale and compassion will prevail. Now it has dawned upon us that without force there is no other way, Frederick Douglass, 1857 said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Are we afraid to die? Or run away to a third country to live a meagre life of survival and forget the suffering people of the country? Are not people like Christian Tin Maung Oo and Muslim Ohn Kyaw Myint not shining examples when they have made a supreme sacrifice for the country? The blood of those who had struggle since 1962 up to this day is silently calling to us via the leadership of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. People of Burma, please lend me your ears.
The privileged few Burmese will attempt to use their justification and social apparatus of wealth to separate themselves from this collective action of the disenfranchised that threaten the privileges and entitlements, which they have enjoyed for so long. Why are so many billionaires and millionaires in the poorest country like Burma? It is time to prove to the world that the Generals cannot effectively thwart the “altruistic punishment” of a people grown weary by the impunity of political-economic oppression and a government’s betrayal of universal human rights.
But care should be taken as we have learnt bitter lessons, in the 1988 prodemocracy movement, the ethnic armed forces have construed the students as Burman/Myanmar group and refused to help even though they accepted them, in the 1997 saffron revolution the non Buddhist especially those in the peripherals interpreted as this is a Myanmar affair and nothing concern with the non Buddhist and non Myanmar. Such mistakes could not be repeated.
This time there must be a simultaneous uprising encompassing all the pro-democracy movement, the ethnic nationalities, the majority and minority religious adherents, clergies and laymen and most importantly the underdogs of the Tatmadaw members. The ordinary soldier knows that a lieutenant knows nothing and does everything, as he can identify with the privates, the captain knows something and does something as he is able to see both sides, the boss and the underdogs, whereas major and above knows everything and did nothing except to enrich himself. Hence the common soldiers, who are not above rank of a major, should be recruited as they will side with the people.
Here the mindsets of our political leadership plays a very crucial role as we often discovered that democratic political leaders betrayed a lack of faith in the strength of the people of Burma and preferred to enter the higher echelons of power through deals with the establishment and foreign powers. We must seek to convince the entire people that the only reliable road to Naypyidaw runs through the towns and hamlets of this country and not from Beijing or Kremlin or Washington and that no cabal of generals can resist the march of a people united and mobilized by a shared ideal. It is time high time to prove to our younger generations and to the world at large that the bureaucratic, feudal and crony capitalism could no longer continue to lord over the masses like a foreign occupying force.
The Burmese Diaspora so numerous, in different countries can also play a crucial role by lobbying their respective governments to support this ultimate battle with the simple rationale, that it is far better to have a nuclear free Burma with a democratic federal government, rather than a quasi military narcotic government supplying all the narcotic of the world (it has outpaced Afghanistan in narco production) and bristling with nuclear missiles. Let us listen to the Clarian call of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and make systematic preparations for the ultimate battle as our motto goes “ even though our heads our bloody yet we are unbowed.”
(I do hope that somebody will translate this, into Burmese language for those people of Burma who are not so proficient in English)
Kanbawza Win, an incumbent Dean of AEIOU is formerly Secretary for Foreign Affairs to the Prime Minister of Burma, joined the 1988 pro democracy movement and served as Professor in the U of Manitoba and later as a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the U of Winnipeg before being called by the EU to serve as a senior Research Fellow at the European Institute of Asian Affairs in Brussels. He has dedicate his life for the education of the marginalized youths of Burma.