Fighting for freedom

By Jenny Wagler

When Burma gets its freedom, Tin Maung Htoo will be out of a job. But not out of a fight.

“Burma, should be supporting all freedom and democracy movements in the area,” he says. “It should be the hub of freedom!”

The Burma activist sees himself as an Asian Che Guevara–without the communism–fighting for a whole region, not just a country.

For now, he is fighting from Ottawa.

When the phone rings, up in Tin’s second-floor office, just back of Preston and Somerset, he’ll answer “Canadian Friends of Burma,” his voice lilting up on “Burma”.

He spends his days here, under the poster gaze of Burmese pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. There are three desks in the room, three computers and a white board where someone has scrawled, “SMASH THE JUNTA.” On a shelf, filing boxes nestle shoulder to shoulder; some labels read: Democracy, Education, Environment Issues and Child Labour: Canadian Efforts.

This is central command for the non-profit Canadian Friends of Burma, which is bent on, as per the white board, smashing the junta. The military junta is the authoritarian regime which controls the country known as both Burma and Myanmar. Last month, the regime caught international attention when thousands of crimson-clad Buddhist monks took to the streets to call for democracy, only to face a government crackdown of batons, guns, and tear gas. The junta admits to a death toll of 10; activist groups believe it could be upward of 200, with thousands more imprisoned.

“We were lucky this time,” Tin says. He credits new technology–such as the Internet, satellite phones, video cameras and cell phones cameras–for capturing international attention quickly, and possibly mitigating the military’s retaliation.

And if he speaks of this time, it is because there was a last time.

The year was 1988 and Tin was 16 and in high school. A socialist government held power. Rumblings of student discontent erupted in protests, which led to military reprisals, which led to more protests.

In early August, the underground student movement spread the word: the people would rise up!

They named a day: Aug. 8, 1988.

“Everywhere in Rangoon and other major cities,” says Tin, “everywhere it said: 8-8-88 popular uprising! On the bus. On the wall. Everywhere you went.”

On August 8, Tin was up by 7 a.m., marching in demonstrations. That evening, he stood with a crowd of perhaps 10,000 in the square in front of Rangoon’s city hall.

Many of the protestors, Tin recounts, were high school students of 14, 15 and 16 years old. Some were monks. Some carried portraits of the country’s independence hero, General Aung San–father of Aung San Suu Kyi. Some waived the peacock flag of the movement. Most had sandals broken from marching all day, or no sandals at all.

At 10:30 p.m., the military began to roll up on one side of the square in armoured vehicles. They shone their high-beam headlights in the protestors’ eyes. Soldiers swarmed throughout the three or four stories of city hall. It was nearly 11 p.m.

“And then they gave us five minutes to leave,” says Tin.

The protestors, including Tin, didn’t move.

And then the shooting began.

“It was kind of like killing fields,” Tin says. “Not only rifles shooting, but also machine guns. Machine guns so powerful, t-t-t-t-t-t. Lots of people collapsed on the square where they were running, and also fell on top of other people, knocked you upside down. You couldn’t see! They were shooting!”

Like everyone else, Tin ran. Out of the square, away from the military, down the next block. Right up against a blockade.

“We were blocked,” says Tin. “But we could clearly see what was happening [back in the square] because the light was so strong. Lots of bodies were falling down. They were shooting, shooting, shooting, shooting, shooting.”

And then, somehow, the barricade came down. And Tin ran through the streets he knew, and made it to a friend’s place. And finally home.

“My mum was very, very worried. She didn’t know where I was. Whether I had died or not.”

Exhausted, Tin took painkillers and slept. The next morning, he woke up and looked out the window. Down in the streets, thousands of students and monks were still walking, barefoot. They had been walking all night.

“And I felt sort of like… selfish. I got out of those troubles because I lived there [in the city centre]. And the other thing I thought was that this was dangerous for them. The military trucks were going back and forth, back and forth,” Tin says.

His premonitions proved correct.

“August 9, at 11 o’clock they started shooting. And then the next day, the next day, the next day, how many days I do not know.”

Some say 3,000 were killed in those bloody days of August 1988. Some say upwards of 10,000.

“One thing’s for sure,” Tin says. “It was a lot.”

He calls 1988, “the tragedy people do not know.” The tragedy beside which the events of last month can seem “lucky.”

And while limited communications technology was one reason the 1988 massacres were downplayed, in Tin’s view, he says the military junta also took direct and specific steps to “systematically create confusion” about their regime. The country’s 1989 rechristening as “Myanmar,” for example.

The junta, says Tin, has used this new name to bury all the bloody images they created. “They want to wipe out the name Burma from the eyes of the international community.”

Nor has the government stopped there. They have changed city names. Rangoon is now Yangon. Moulmein is Mawlamyine. The Arakan state is the Rakhine state.

“Even street names have changed,” Tin says.

The military junta, he says, has chosen new names–which more closely follow the Burmese pronunciation of place names–as a ruse.

“They portray themselves as nationalists.”

But if the regime’s game smacks of smoke and mirrors, Tin is all about the concrete–real actions with real outcomes.

His own life is marked by action. Some of his career highlights, since fleeing Rangoon just after the massacres, include: preaching democracy to villages in the malarial jungles of Southern Burma; campaigning in Bangkok, resulting in three years in a Thai detention center; and earning a degree in Economics and Political Science from the University of Western Ontario.

And equally, as an activist, he is only satisfied with action.

He discounts the United States’ recent announcement–to freeze all assets belonging to 14 senior officials in the Burmese government held in the jurisdiction of the U.S., and to prohibit all Americans from doing business with the 14– as “not that strong,” and “mainly symbolic.”

As for Canada, he says he hopes the decision to make Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi an honorary Canadian citizen will catch Canadians’ attention and put Burma in the spotlight.

“Burma is apparently becoming a priority in Canadian foreign policy,” he says, noting that this is the first time the country has been mentioned in a Throne Speech.

“We really appreciate what the prime minister [Stephen Harper] has done,” he says. “But it’s still not enough.”

Tin wants Canada to implement the Burma Motion that was passed in Parliament in May 2005.

The motion calls for comprehensive economic sanctions on Burma, pushing for UN Security Council intervention, and financially supporting the Burmese democracy movement.

And so Tin continues the fight. To lobby politicians. To pressure Canadian companies to divest of their Burmese interests that fill the junta’s coffers. To raise awareness amongst Canadians. And ultimately to smash the junta.

“In Burma,” he says, “people are living in fear. They have trouble sleeping. They are afraid they will hear a knock at the door in the middle of the night.”