Saturday, August 3, 2013

"8-8-88 Uprising and Me" by Ye Min Htun

(This is the direct translation of Ye Min Htun’s ‘Four 8 Uprising and Me’.)  

Practicing politics in Burma is an extremely high risk profession. A politician in dictatorial Burma could be arrested any time and during the long BSPP (Burma Socialist Program Party) rule it could be outright dangerous for a politician to be arrested. Since I was very young I’d heard the tragic stories of many jailed politicians whose lives were forever destroyed.

I often witnessed the MIS men in a Mazda E2000 mini-truck regularly taking away that old red-flag Communist Yee Mhaing (a) Nyo Mhaing whenever the dates of politically significant events from past approached. Sometimes he came back in few days but sometimes it could take months or even years. His life was so unstable he didn’t have a job. He couldn’t even work as an itinerant laborer and I sometimes felt really bad seeing him wandering from one teashop to another teashop.

I’d also seen mildly-mad Tin Aung Htun who used to live near my great uncle’s house when I was a young boy. He was arrested and tortured by Ne Win’s Government for his involvement in 1974 U Thant Uprising. Since then he would avoid a crowd. Whenever he saw a group of students in school uniform he became really scared and always tried to hide. Even though some students in our neighborhood laughed at his habit of running away and hiding inside the house whenever someone teasingly said to him that the students were coming I always wondered why did he become like that.

But one day I who had seen the ruined lives of two politicians first hand got a chance to read rare political literature. One of my friends exchanged my guitar for the big pine box full of books left by his recently deceased grandfather. Among the rare old books were two books titled “The Last Days of Thakhin Than Htun” one published by Mya-yar-bin Books and other one by the ruling BSPP. I read two books together and discovered that those two books with same title were completely different.

Dictator General Ne Win (1980).
Since then I’d become familiar with the political literature. I began to know the real solid facts about the Thakhins, AFPFL, Communist Party, Thakhin Kodaw Mhaiang, etc, which were nothing like what we have been taught as the official History in our schools. These true historical facts about our Burma after Independence had basically changed me significantly.

Very soon I knew a lot such as what is BSPP, who really is Dictator Ne Win, who is U Nu, etc. Also from that time I began to dislike BSPP and Ne Win. I also knew more about 1974 U Thant Uprising where many university students were killed by the Army.

Then 1988 came. We used to chat a lot about March Incident when RIT student Phone Maw was killed by the police. One female teacher who knew I was always talking eagerly about politics even paid a visit to our usual hang-out Thain-koe-zae teashop and warned me not to stay at home and to hide. Only then I felt really worried about myself getting arrested.

But on the other hand I was childishly happy that the much-talk-about 8-8-88 General Strike would happen and probably bring the downfall of Ne Win’s BSPP government. I was only 16 back then.

I was even afraid that the Strikes wouldn’t happen. But if there would be an uprising because of the strikes I wanted it to be successful. Only then I wouldn’t be arrested I guessed. Thus I decided to participate in the coming General Strike. I wouldn’t run away I decided.

Even though I was worrying for myself because of that teacher’s warning, actually I didn’t really do much politically before.  Once I merely stood and watched the protesters burning a government Mazdajeep vehicle from the Tourist Burma by the Sule Pagoda.

And in last March when we heard about the student strike in the Rangoon University I went there with two friends to watch. But we turned back after my friends chickened out and wanted to go back home. Even if we went into the Rangoon University we wouldn’t see a thing as the actual student strike was in the Rangoon Institute of Technology. But because of my two friends telling others about our misadventure I became well known among our friends as someone who had connections with the student strikes. 

In reality I had no political colors and no body had ever recruited me and no UG (Underground movement of a political organization) had ever encouraged me. I was just a politically curious boy and that nasty challenge of Dictator Ne Win on the State-owned TV daring the people to protest against his Socialist Government made me participate in the Uprising.

Historic Day 8-8-88

The morning of 8 August 1988.  

The Kyauktadar Township where I lived then was right in the middle of Rangoon and that morning there were no shops opened in the nearby 38th Street Market but few street vendors.  Most of the shops on the Frazer Road (Anawrahtar Road) were shut and all the gold shops were closed too. People were expecting a very large crowd of striking protesters coming into the city.

Every body was talking about the strikes all over Rangoon and the various crowds marching towards city. Also the rumors of the arrival in Rangoon of feared Chin troops with red scarves around their necks were breaking out everywhere. People were even saying that the Chins were gonna really shoot the protesters on the streets this time as Dictator Ne Win had threatened on the Government TV.

While we were waiting the marching strikers came into the city as expected. It was a huge crowd and by that afternoon the whole army of protesters coming into the city had turned back from the Pansodan Street and gathered in front of the Town Hall. I and a few friends wanted to join the demonstrations but we managed to do only just getting in and out of the crowd.

Almost everyone covered their faces with pieces of clothing or handkerchiefs to hide their identity from the government agents taking secret photos. In my pocket I had a large handkerchief I prepared for this occasion yesterday in case I needed. By six o’clock the massive crowd was so incredibly huge anyone could have hard time getting through.

While I was standing at the corner of 37th Street and Maha Bandoola Road and watching the crowd a few with their faces covered and their bags slung across their shoulders came into the street and asked for packed-lunch donations as we had expected.  The overwhelming support from people of our street was incredible.

Every apartment block turned off the stairs-lights and the residents waited downstairs at the stairs and called out to the collectors and gave than already made packed-lunches. Every five or 6 stair cases was enough to fill their large basket with packed-meals. I was first watching the collectors carrying the heavy basket and suddenly decided to help them and so I willingly ended up carrying their basket laden with packed-meals.

I and one other carried the huge basket filled with packed-meals together back towards the Town Hall and people in the crowd along the way gave us way and also cheered us. Their cheers made me fresh again even though our shirts were drown with our own sweat from hard work. One of my first cousins joined me helping the supply troops for the protesters but later his father my uncle followed us and hit him on the head and took him home.

He told me to come back home with them but I just shook my head. I used to be afraid of that violent uncle but that night he left me alone when I stared back at him with my eyes just above the handkerchief mask covering half my face. I was really enthusiastic about the protest that night.

Not only the packed-meals the people had dropped many cases of Cream Soda and Orange Juice bottles from Dagon Soft Drinks Factory as Burma then didn’t have bottled water like now. There were piles of cakes, breads, and buns dropped there by people in Mazda B360 and B600 vehicles. I had never seen such expensive donation of food generously by the people of Rangoon before.

We placed all these donated food at two places. One place was on the median strip of Maha Bandoola Road right in front of the Town Hall and other was by the barbed-wire barricades on the corner of Barr Street and Maha Bandoola Road. We put the food packages and soft drink cases there right by the Town Hall so that it will become a barrier if the soldiers already inside the Town Hall rushed out and attacked and tried to arrest the protesters.

Never in my mind did a thought occur then that those soldiers would later brutally fire at the massive crowd gathering there. I was utterly wrong.

Encircled by the Troops

At nine in the night the ambulances inside the Town Hall compound suddenly left and many Hino TE 21 trucks from the RTC (Road Transport Corporation) carrying more troops arrived. The army officers on the loud-speakers were now shouting at the crowd to disperse and not to wave the union flags any more. Behind the gates and the low fences of the Town Hall were the Chin Troops with their signature red scarves proudly around their necks.

Instead of their usual jungle hats they were now wearing the steel army helmets. Their faces were extremely tense while their automatic G3 rifles were readily pointing at the crowd. In the adjacent Barr Street were two rows of Chin soldiers one row on their kneels and one behind standing with all their G3 rifles aiming at the crowd as if they were in a target practice.

They were from the 22nd Light Infantry Division. That LID 22 would later become notorious as the Army Division that brutally slaughtered hundreds and hundreds of its own people.

People were shouting the political slogans at the top of their voices and many were loudly singing the national anthem. The bespectacled man carrying the big basket together with me kept on reminding me to stay with him all the time. He was much older than me and he was apparently so worried that I a younger boy could get lost easily in the crowd in such a possibly dangerous situation. Also with us were two young girls still in the school uniforms of white blouse and green sarong.

The scary rumors about the arrival of more army troops in the vicinity had gradually forced most spectators to flee back home. Only now I wondered the striking protesters should have retreated from that confined space too like the others. Back then I didn’t think of the real possibility that the leaderless demonstrating crowd was deliberately kept there by the BSPP agents to be easily slaughtered by the Government troops.

Those agents were the men telling the crowd the encouraging news loud and clear then. They were telling them that the State Council meeting had already started, BSPP collapse was imminent, democracy was near, and the Army was going to join us, etc, etc. Because of them the protesting crowd wouldn’t disperse till it was too late.

By then the army had blocked Maha Bandoola Road at both Pansodan Street and Sule Pagoda Road intersections. Sule Pagoda Road and Merchant Street were also closed off. We could see the troops now barricading the streets at Tourist Burma office and Shamee Confectionary   on the intersection of Maha Bandoola Road and Sule Pagoda Road. The huge crowd in front of the Rangoon Town Hall was now completely encircled by the armed troops from all four directions.

Once we knew we were trapped the bespectacled man led me down the Lower Barr Street to find a possible way out. Two young school girls with us were also following us and they were so scared they wouldn’t let go the hem of my shirt from their tight grips.

While we were rushing pass the High Court on Lower Barr Street they cut off the power and the whole city had suddenly descended into a total darkness. Only the Town Hall and Sule Pagoda were dimly lit by their own emergency generators. When I looked down at my little wrist watch the time was well over 11 O’clock. Right ahead of us were the lines of armed soldiers from Burma Navy blocking the street at the intersection of Lower Barr Street and Merchant Road.

We were now hopelessly trapped.

Bespectacled big brother now holding me tight by the neck whispered to me, “Little brother, we have to run into that lane between the MEB (Myanmar Economic Bank) branch and the American Embassy.” I told him that lane was a no-through-road as the other end was a dead end. He said, “I know, but we have no other way out. Soldiers have blocked everywhere and we just have to run into the American Embassy from the rear. Once I counted 1,2,3 we run through the gap between two soldiers to get into that lane.” 

He was determined but we were scared shitless. But I still explained to the two girls still holding me tight by my sides what we were going to do and started looking for a possible gap among the lines of soldiers standing at attention pose. We were all horribly shaking with fears. And the bayonets at the end of their rifles were horribly flashing in the moonlight.

The girls asked me what we were going to do if the soldiers started shooting at us. I had not a bloody idea so I just answered them to run to escape. The crowd around us had already accepted the fact that the soldiers were really going to fire soon and some people started crying out aloud while some even sung the anthem louder and louder.

Some were even shouting ridiculous stuff like People’s Soldiers Our Soldiers, People’s Army Our Army. And we could hear the loud cries of We are Burmese, What we’re doing is For our Burma from the crowd behind us. I thought these cries were the desperate pleadings of people to the soldiers to disobey if their superiors gave them the orders to shoot.

By that time we were at a quite a distance from the crowd back at the Town Hall. There were only 20 or 30 people near us. Then the bespectacled big brother quickly counted 1,2,3 and we four ran through the lines of soldiers. Others followed us.

I didn’t even recall how I pulled through two soldiers the two young girls holding tight on my each hand. Amidst the yelling of the surprised soldiers I didn’t even remember how we four and the rest all got through unharmed without a scratch on us. But somehow we got through the lines of soldiers.

Only later I could conclude that the possible reasons for our lucky escape were that the soldiers didn’t really expect us to run through them and they probably didn’t have the firing order yet and they were only the navy men stationed in Rangoon. If they were the battle-hardened Chin soldiers coming from the frontline we would have been slaughtered like what happened to the rest just a few minutes later.

Taking Refuge in US Embassy

Former US Embassy in Rangoon.
Once we were out of the Lower Barr Street we pushed away the barbed-wire barricades from the Embassy lane and tried to enter the American Embassy through its side door. But the brick wall behind the Embassy was more than two men’s height and the side entrance had a full-height one-way turnstile through which one can only get out not in. No way could we get into the embassy’s backyard through that turnstile.

So we broke through the door of the rear wall of the adjoining Government office and climbed onto the protruding air-conditioning units on the back wall of that office. From there we pulled ourselves onto the rows of barbed-wire mounted on the top of more than 20 foot high rear-brick-wall of the embassy.  From there we had to jump down onto the ground of the embassy’s narrow backyard. It was so high one of the young girls fell and sprained her ankle.

All together 22 in the backyard we counted. We didn’t even dare to breathe aloud. The backyard and the whole surrounding was completely dark and lifeless silent. Suddenly the lights in the backyard came on and the CCTV cameras mounted on the back wall of the Embassy were alive. Bespectacled big brother yelled out aloud in English that we were students and immediately the lights gone off.

Then someone from the laneway shouted through a handheld loudspeaker, “Hey, the group going in there, come out now. That area is the territory of a foreign diplomatic mission and you all will be prosecuted. Come out and go back homes now.” Then we heard someone calling the man with loud speaker, “Captain, Captain,” and after the sounds of the footsteps rushing away from the lane way the total silence had come back again.

State Massacre

For next few seconds nothing could be heard in the ice-cold silence. But it didn’t take long at all. We heard the deeply disturbing sounds of the crowd suddenly collapsing and running away as the dang-dang sounds of two rifle shots came out first. The very long bursts of prolonged automatic gun-shots followed. From where we were we could clearly hear the loud cries and deep screams of the people getting killed by the advancing troops.

The troops had rapidly tightened their constricting hold of the besieged crowd by shooting anyone on the streets and quickly advancing their attacking lines inward towards the Town Hall where the epicenter of the huge protesting crowd was. Army had even issued hundreds of 12 gauge shot guns to the shooting troops on the frontlines to enhance the effectiveness of close-range killings. Conservative estimates put the death toll at 10,000 at least.

Even though we all sat together really close and holding each other’s hands tight in the darkness our bodies were shaking with sadness and surprise and fright and anger altogether. Bespectacled big brother said in a crying voice, “Remember today and this time, and never ever forget this.” The time was 15 minutes before 12 O’clock on my watch.

11:45 in the night of August 8, 1988.

Amidst the loud gunfire were the cries and screams and begging of people on the open streets to the soldiers not to shoot at them. The dark screams of the hapless people brutally slaughtered in the dark 8888 night might be like the boiling of hot oil in the cauldrons of the Great Hell we Buddhists believe in. I’d never heard such horrible deep screams ever before in my young life and I still believed I would never hear them again in the future.

I was so angry I had frightening goose bumps all over and the shivering made the hair stood on end. My whole body was uncontrollably shaking as I tried to control my busting anger. I felt like letting my mind go and break some thing violently there. 

After few hours of shooting we started hearing the rushing in of many trucks on the streets and later the watery splashing sounds of many fire-engines cleaning the roads with their fire-hoses. Then we heard the same many trucks driving fast passed the embassy towards the naval wharves of Rangoon. We could clearly hear the desperate Please help us, they are taking us away, they are killing us pleas and the deep screams of the wounded from the passing trucks. And all of us there cried.

As their usual practice to hide the mass slaughter the Army immediately sent in the sand-filled open trucks to remove the dead and dying from the scene. The bodies some of which were still-alive were then taken to the san-filled naval barges waiting at the Rangoon Naval Base and then dumped at the crocodile-infested waters where the Rangoon River meets the sea. The Army also used the fire-engines to clean the scene of massacre spotless within few hours to remove all the traces of mass slaughter.

Finally the noises had slowly died down and the previous Army Captain came back again with a real loud speaker this time. “People still in the Embassy’s backyard, come out and go back to your homes peacefully. Otherwise we will take appropriate actions according to the law,” he started shouting at us again.

Only then a window on the Embassy’s second floor was opened and a hand came out and spotting us on the ground with a torch light as if we were being counted from above. One man in a torn shirt from our group was frightened and he rushed towards the steel gate and tried to open the door from inside.

But I and the bespectacled big brother rushed in and stopped him from opening the door. After that we just blocked the door with our backs and told every one in the backyard to back down and not to come near us but the two young girls were so scared they just came up and stayed with us by the gate.

Later the people from the Embassy’s second floor dropped down water and soft drinks and cakes and bread for us. But I didn’t touch the food as I didn’t feel like eating or drinking at all. Only fear and anger occupied my mind and I was also thinking about the sad facts that the people from the huge crowd in front of the Town Hall were brutally killed by the countless bursts of automatic gun fires. Till the morning arrived most of us kept on crying at the same time saying repeatedly that one gun shot could hit so many people in the crowd.

At about 6:30 we opened the door for the people wanting to go home. We asked them to yell back at us if nothing dangerous outside but most just silently disappeared except for the four who came back to the gate and shouted there was nothing outside. But we didn’t believe them and still we didn’t dare to go out. Finally only six including me left in the Embassy’s backyard. Day was quickly breaking and we could see each other’s faces clearly.

Except for the big brother with glasses the rest were all teenagers 15 or 16 year old. Then we held each other’s hands tight and agreed to leave the embassy compound. On the streets everything appeared normal like nothing serious had happened last night. Thoroughly washed asphalted streets were shinny black and not a piece of rubbish on them. Only then I began to know the brutal characteristic of the military government.

I had the complete confidence to say that hundreds and hundreds of people died there that night by the evidence of me actually hearing myself the long bursts of continuous gunshots from the massive firing into the huge crowd. I could confidently claim that my statement is true. The bespectacled big brother and two young school girls are still alive today and they will be my witnesses.

Mourning for the Lost Souls

What I wrote was what happened exactly on my first day of the 8-8-88 Uprising. I will never forget that till the day I die. I will mourn for the fallen and I will not let them go from the purgatory of my mind till this military dictatorship is removed. This is my promise to the people who lost their lives in fighting for what they really desired but never achieved in their lifetimes. I believed that the fallen will also fight the dictators with their tortured souls to the end.

I will be a witness in a people’s court when the time comes to prosecute the mass murderers of Burmese Army for the 8-8-88 midnight slaughter of thousands of people in Rangoon. For cruelly firing into the unarmed crowd in front of the Rangoon Town Hall exactly at 11:45 in the night of 8 August 1988 in the darkness after cutting the power to the city. The Embassy’s CCTV camera records will prove our refuge that night in the backyard of American Embassy on the middle of Merchant Street.

Every anniversary of 8-8-88 Uprising has been a difficult day for me as I felt like drowning as if my insides were depressed to such extent that I couldn’t breath no more. On every August 8 I always felt like I would never be in peace again. But I am not praying for the fallen yet. Only when the military is put on a trial and only after the huge blood debt is repaid I will pray for the souls of all the fallen to rest in peace.

My head bowed down with deep sorrow I salute the fallen monks, men and women, and the students who have sacrificed their lives in their fight for democracy in Burma.