AND LIBERTY CURTAILED
(The statement of Burmese nationals on Guam seeking asylum in the USA)
By Rev. Dr. Hre Kio
Burma: Burma, placed between Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand, with a land mass of 261,789 square miles, (678,033 sq km) known as “the rice bowl of Southeast Asia” in the early 1900s, got its independence from Britain on January 4,1948 after a long struggle for freedom. Independence came first from the United Kingdom; second from the Japanese wartime occupation and then again from the British colonial rule after the II World War. The independent Burma chose to follow the path of Parliamentary democracy from its inception with two house-organs: the Upper House of Chambers and the Lower House of Nationalities. The Prime Minister was leader of the government and the President was head of state.
Since independence, democracy developed and grew in Burma since independence and after three general elections (1951,1956, & 1960) democracy appeared to be taking firm roots in the country. In spite of its inevitable flaws, democracy proved to be a better system not only in the process for governing the people but also in terms of peaceful change of hands as to who are to be entrusted with the power to rule. By 1960, Burma was called “the rising star of the Southeast Asia” particularly in the field of economic development whose progress was significant and dramatic.
“The Iron Curtain” fell: On March 2,1962, based on dubious reasons, the democratically elected government of Prime Minister U Nu was removed by force by a bloodless military coup and the state power was passed into the hands of the Revolutionary Council headed by General Ne Win. This military and totalitarian regime has ruled the country of Burma with iron hands and cruel tactics for the last 38 years. This socialistic system of government introduced a one party system – The Burma Socialist Program Party. Its name was changed to SLORC – State Law and Order Restoration Council in 1989, and after ten years to SPDC – State Peace and Development Council. “Burma” was also changed to Myanmar – the name pro-democracy movements refuse to use. All foreign missionaries were forced to leave the country in 1964.
All is not quiet at the front: During these 38 long years of tyranny, the people did not sit with passive resignation. They did do something to achieve freedom and democracy. When the people time and again demonstrated against tyranny, the army quelled them with force. Gen. Ne Win boasted, “When the army shot, it shot straight.”
Five months after the coup, on July 7, 1962, university students demonstrated against the government. Soldiers were ordered to fire on the students. Official count put 16 students dead, while generally it was claimed that over 100 dead was more accurate. The tragedy culminated when the authorities dynamited the Rangoon University Students’ Union building and reduced it to rubble. Many believed that the building was full of students, all of whom were killed in the blast.
In the summer of 1974, the meanness of spirit was shown by the authorities over the funeral of U Thant, retired Secretary-General of the United Nations. The University students took over the funeral arrangement of U Thant when they saw the disgraceful arrangement prepared by the military. This action resulted in the deaths of a good number of students at the hands of the soldiers.
Again in 1976, soldiers quelled the strikers of dock-workers when they demonstrated against the new rules introduced by the government. The authorities never revealed the number killed, but the estimate was close to 50.
The largest uprising against the government took place in August 1988, (code named 8.8.’88). It affected the whole country, and participating in the demonstrations led by University students were people of all ages from all different strata of society: farmers, laborers, civil servants, including members of the armed forces, Buddhist monks, Christians, Muslims, intellectuals, professionals, businessmen, small traders, housewives and artists. Their one and only demand was to change the authoritarian rule of military dictatorship which had impoverished Burma intellectually, politically, morally and economically. And on September 18, the military authorities ordered fire on the weaponless civilian demonstrators, and “the army shot straight.” Thousands, including children, were cut down, by bullets from the army’s rifles and tanks. Hundreds were buried in mass graves with many wounded still alive. The army never revealed the locations of those graves to the public. The peoples’ hopes were crushed to the dust once again.
Eleven years later, on September 9, 1999 (code named 9.9.’99), a demonstration and uprising was secretly planned, again led by university students, and pro-democracy movement leaders and some Buddhist monks. However, the Military Intelligence agents were ahead of the game; they launched a pre-emptive strike, throwing many of the leaders into prisons where they languished without proper trials and legal representation.
In all these series of struggles for democracy, one thing is clear: students have been at the forefront of the movement for democracy. As a result, they suffered the most as well. Those who fled the country for fear of imprisonment and torture and reached Guam for safety and asylum are mostly young people reflecting the reality of the tragedy in Burma. Each one can tell his or her own story of the struggles they went through.
The World is not silent either: The United Nations General Assembly has more than once passed resolutions condemning Burma for its actions on its own people, its human right abuses and its restrictions on political and religious activities. The US government has passed sanctions against new investments in Burma and strictly banned travel to the USA by the Generals of Burma. The European Union has time and again passed strongly worded resolutions condemning the actions of the Burma government and even refused to sit at a meeting with ASEAN ministers if any minister from Burma participated in the meeting. The EU also banned travel to their region by any military leaders from Burma. The International Labor Organization imposed sanctions against Burma in November 2000. This ban against Burma was based on Burma’s government consistent and long practice of forced labor at all levels of society.
China has been the main supporter of Burma’s military rule for years in terms of moral and material support. Last year India joined the club even to the extent of forcibly returning Burmese (mostly Chin) refugees from Mizoram, India to Burma, right into the “jaws of death.” The ASEAN policy of “constructive engagement” has not been successful. It is constructive mainly to the leaders of Burma’s military junta; it is disruptive, even destructive, to the common people and movement of democracy within Burma, because it prolongs the life of a ruthless regime.
The United Nations in 1987 designated Burma, once called “the rising star of Southeast Asia” as one of the 12 poorest countries in the world. Burma, one of the richest nations in Asia in terms of mineral resources such as jade and rubies, including the largest teak forest reserve in the world, has been mismanaged by the generals into one of the poorest nations on earth. This is a crime the government has committed against its own people. Its cruel practice of widespread use of forced labor and forced contribution of money to the building of Buddhist pagodas, involuntary relocation of people targeted primarily at the ethnic minority, military offensives against civilians forcing them to be porters, threats and intimidation, destruction of crops and livestock, forcing Christians to sell liquor even though their religion forbids its sell and consumption, rapes, torture and summary arrest and executions have been well known for a long, long time. The government has denied all these cruel practices for many years, but the people inside the country know very well that the government is not telling the truth.
The result of general election voided: After the 1988 people’s uprising, for fear of the people and in an attempt to pacify them, the military government announced a general election to be held in May 1990. Political parties were required to register to the Central Election Commission office in Rangoon. Over 200 parties registered with the government. The National League for Democracy was one of them, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Gen. Aung San, the hero of Burma’s independence. Gen. Aung San was assassinated by his political opponent U Saw, five months before independence.
The general election of May 1990 was regarded as the fairest and freest election in Burma’s history. The result of the election showed that NLD, led by Suu Kyi, received 82% of the seat in Parliament. This massive support of NLD by the people was a landslide victory for MS Suu Kyi, although she herself was barred by the government to compete for a Parliament seat. This election demonstrated both a disfavor towards the military government whose favorite party was named “The National Unity Party”, and a favor towards Ms Suu Kyi, as a leader of enormous ability, of quality, charisma and integrity. MS Suu Kyi was awarded the Noble Peace Prize in 1991, and recently the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton, in November 2000, the highest civilian award that the US government can offer.
The military government cruelly refused to hand over power to the leaders elected by the people, and thereby the will of the people, 82% of the voters, was voided by the generals. For them “power resides at the barrel of the guns.” They betrayed the will of the people to whom they had made a promise that they would relinquish power to whoever was the winner in the general election. It is next to impossible to convince those who have acquired power forcibly of the wisdom of peaceful change. The realization of that wisdom usually occurs when it is too late. In Burma, tragedy of national proportion awaits! All political parties are extinct now in Burma, and the only party (the NLD) too is on the verge of being annihilated by a slow process of eliminating its members. Its leader Aung San Suu Kyi is now virtually under house arrest. Religious discrimination: Burma is comprised of many language and ethnic groups who are minorities in the land. Minorities like Karens, Kachins and Chins have converted to Christianity, and therefore in Chin, Kachin and Karenni States, the majority of the populations are now Christians. This situation brings particular difficulties for the people. The military government, comprising purely of the Burmese, who form the majority in the whole country, about 75%, dictates what should and should not be done in these “Christian” states. What is ethical and moral does not count for the Buddhist authorities in power. Religious discrimination and persecution is amply visible, in Chin State and elsewhere. A few examples will suffice:
Christian Church building permission is impossible to obtain from the authorities throughout the country.
Those who have started building are forced to stop. (Eg: Chin centenary building in Hakha – the capital of Chin State; United Pentecostal Church in Hakha; Zomi Theological dining hall in Falam; Church of Jesus Christ church in Falam; Kachin Church in Pakan; Roman Catholic hall in Pakan; Salvation Army church in Khampat.)
Christian crosses planted on the top of the hills are forcibly removed by the order of Col. Than Aung in Kanpalet, Thantlang, Hakha, Falam and Tiddim townships, very often using the very Christian hands that had planted the crosses in the first place.
It was Col. Than Aung who declared publicly, in Chin State, that Christian pastors are his number one enemy, accusing them as pro-white faced colonialist stooges.
Christian institutions are removed: Revival School of Theology in Maymyo; Lisu Bible School in Maymyo; Lisu Christian school in Mogok.
Churches in Mogok town are forcibly painted black, or face being removed.
Lai Baptist Church’s worship in Insein, near Rangoon was interrupted by soldiers in uniform and the church was closed.
Those who persisted in constructing their church building are beaten severely. (Eg: A Salvation Army pastor in Khampat beaten by an army captain – beaten so badly he needed hospitalization.)
Those who persisted in preaching the Gospel faced torture and death. (Eg: A Naga preacher-evangelist in Homelin township of Sagaing Division was falsely accused of aiding Naga underground movement, was beaten to death and his body was dragged down the street to intimidate the villagers.)
These kinds of activities are going on currently in Burma, without being noticed by the world at large.
Racial discrimination: This is a policy the Government in Burma has been practicing for over 50 years, although it is not what they preach. Space and time does not allow detailing all the incidents that have occurred in Burma on the ethnic minorities for so long a period. These incidents took place not in the capital city of Rangoon, but mostly in the States (Chin, Kachin, Shan and Karen States). A few examples will suffice:
There is no minister in the government from people with ethnic background. Even top civilian jobs with authentic power are not open to them.
Soldiers from ethnic backgrounds are not permitted to be promoted over the rank of major, nor are they permitted to attend Military Academies. Some Christian officers have been told point blank: “If you remain Christian, you remain a captain; but the moment you confess to be Buddhist you jump to the next rank.” Most of the time, Christian officers choose to remain Christian.
Those minorities who had been ranking officers in the army and police are slowly eliminated from the services. One of those officers is in Guam and he can testify his experience is asked. Another unwritten regulation in the armed forces policy dictates that:
A soldier who converts a Christian to Buddhism will be promoted immediately;
Any Buddhist soldier marrying a Christian lady will be promoted to the next rank;
A Buddhist soldier having children with a Christian spouse will be promoted to the next level in rank.
Any Buddhist soldier marrying an ethnic girl who is a graduate and the daughter of a chief will be awarded with an increased salary of K1200/- a month.
Any Buddhist soldier’s salary will be increased by K1000/- a month if he marries an ethnic girl who is a college graduate.
In many districts in minority areas, the government ordered not to teach their minority languages in government primary schools. And no private schools are allowed in the country. All Christian schools have been nationalized since 1965. This effort of the government appears to be a basic and yet fundamental attempt to Burmanize the whole country and eliminate all 130 ethnic groups. It is a miracle that after 50 years of this kind of systematic campaign by the military government there are still ethnic groups existing at all in Burma. The vast majority of those of us who fled to Guam are from various ethnic groups.
In these States, mentioned above, soldiers forced young men to carry their equipment and rations in the areas where fighting took place between the government and the anti- government forces. These young men are called “porters”. Day after day, the porters were forced to serve as “shields” – forced to go ahead of the platoon of soldiers to get shot by the enemies. When the porters were sick and weak, or suffered exhaustion due to heavy loads, they were left behind to die a slow death, or even were shot dead. Young women’s fate, when they served as porters, were worse: they faced both being raped and be shot. No wages or compensation was paid. This kind of abuse had occurred in Burma for the last 38 years without being noticed by the world at large.
Private car owners in these States constantly faced the highhanded demand from the solders: their cars – mostly truck and jeeps – were taken by force by the soldiers (since the soldiers lack military trucks) for days and weeks moving them in all sorts of conditions and environments. Usually the private cars never returned in good conditions. Most of the time the cars were left behind in the jungle. There was no compensation paid by the soldiers nor any apology offered.
A driver’s license could be taken away, or being slapped on the face for passing over the military officer’s car.
This kind of inhumane practice was widespread and has been going on for many years.
Physical abuse and mental torture: It is a tall order to attempt to detail all the incidences of physical abuse and mental torture that the government has used against its opponents which they call “the enemy of the state.” We will mention a few:
The “opponents” were arrested usually in the middle of the night unexpectedly,
“A few minutes of questioning” always resulted in months or years of imprisonment. Tortures take different forms:
Meals (usually rice) were mixed with sand,
Pins were pushed between the flesh and fingernails,
Prisoners were forced to kneel on sharp pebbles until their knees bled,
Inmates were put naked in the open to be “feasted” by malaria carrying mosquitoes,
Simple drops of water on the head for hours turns into horrifying and deafening sounds to the victim, Plastic bags were placed to envelop their heads for a period of time until the victim becomes unconscious, and then he/she was released for a time to recover, The prisoner was placed in an empty barrel and pushed around by trucks for hours,
Those arrested or transferred to another location were bagged into gunny bags and tied at the top, to be sat upon by soldiers on moving trucks,
Hot and pointed iron rods were pierced through the flesh of the thighs,
A rat was placed in a pot which was attached to the prisoner’s stomach; when the pot was made hot the rat dug into the stomach in an desperate attempt to escape,
To break their will, prisoners were placed without food or water for days,
Their four limps were stretched out and tied to four corners of the room,
Prisoners were put in dark room for days, making them virtually blind for days,
Prisoners usually became “mentally disturbed” when they were hung upside down, their legs tied to the ceiling and their heals beaten slowly with an iron rod, Inmates were threatened constantly to be shot, a mental torture that keeps them constantly awake, making sleep impossible.
Some of those arrested are turned into forced labor, known as “zebet” who in uniform were regimented into hard labor for months and years, removed to remote areas where neither their relatives nor religious and social workers can see or help them. These prisoners were condemned to die slow deaths. They were often put in chains even while working, and most of them died in isolated parts of the country where medical facilities are non-existent. Often bullock yokes were tied to their neck in pairs, as if they were bulls, plowing muddy fields, making furrows for planting paddies in the rainy season. Many of the “zebet” prisoners collapsed exhausted in the mud. Then they were removed to isolated areas never to be fed any meals, left alone to die a slow death. Their bones were never recovered, nor their graves known. Their number is by the thousands, most likely around 40,000.
Some of us who fled to Guam have gone through some of these kinds of physical torture. (One of us will present his ordeal to you today.) These dangers are some of the risks we will face again if we are forced to return to Burma from Guam.
To flee Burma is a costly and risky business: All of us, who have arrived on Guam have faced the above mentioned types of danger and torture in one form or another as we all have worked and struggled to restore democracy in Burma. We have realized that democracy is costly and can not be achieved easily. We fled from Burma simply because our lives are in danger, and to live in a constant state of fear is most difficult to bear. Since we are all young people, we cannot afford our lives to be cut short. We want to live.
We all have made sacrifices in various forms to come to Guam. Some of us have left our children and spouses back in Burma, and all of us left behind our land, our relatives and our dear friends. We all sold whatever property we had, or borrowed money in order to get Burmese passports and some of us pawned our homes and fields. Some of us have paid the equivalent of $750 (US dollars) to get a single Burmese passport. Some of us have changed our names in order to avoid being detected by the all-powerful MIS agents (Military Intelligence Service agents.) Most of us hid in various homes and different places in Rangoon so as not to be caught by government spies.
We all came to Guam through Bangkok via Seoul, Manila or Taipei; the air ticket from Burma to Guam costs us about $1000 (US dollars.) We all brought along with us US$500 as “Show Money”. (It is quite likely that a few MIS agents might have infiltrated into Guam from Burma pretending to be visitors, in order to observe what we are doing here and what we are up to. We are taking all precautions in all our activities here on Guam.) To arrive on Guam is very costly and risky for us. But we take all those risks in order to save our lives.
The US government had closed the door to Guam on the 10th of January 2001, and this is a tragedy for those Burmese nationals who are actively working for democracy in Burma. Because the only door open for them has been closed, and they have no where to go to save their lives. They are destined to their fate: into the iron hands of the MIS.
Where do we go from here? Those of us who arrived on Guam, we want to say how grateful we are to the US Immigration and Naturalization Service for having allowed us to enter into Guam. We all feel much safer and at peace. We are also extremely grateful to various churches here on Guam and mainland USA for helping us in the form of clothes, beds, cooking pots and pens, tinned food, money and above all their love and affection for us, probably “the unlovable.” We all say “thank you” to you all from the bottom of our hearts.
But our “Show Money” of $500 has run out or is running out for renting houses and for food. Currently, we the Burmese nationals here on Guam number around 1000, are located in various villages here on Guam renting over 70 houses. Friends and relatives both from Burma and mainland USA are helping us, but this help cannot go on indefinitely. A few of us have gotten sick and needed hospitalization, incurring thousands of dollars in debt to the hospital. Over 300 of us have been skin tested, and although some results are positive chest x-rays have revealed “normal lungs” with no active TB disease. Other than these, we have not been a burden to the Government of Guam. We want to take care of ourselves as far as possible. Most of us are high school and college graduates and some of us are doctors, engineers, pastors and teachers.
Having no jobs available on Guam has had a detrimental affect on us. Other than a few men and women, perhaps fifty, who have been working at odd jobs in various villages, we are jobless on the island of Guam. Even for those of us who have received a “work permit”, any paying job is hard to find. Since the unemployment rate is over 15%, it will be a long while until jobs will be available.
Could we dare to make a request to INS? Most of the Burmese nationals arrived here on Guam during the last 7 months. Most of us have submitted our applications asking for political asylum, and some of us have received “temporary permits to stay” here on Guam.
However, during the last 7 months, only 55 Burmese nationals have been interviewed by Immigration officers. If the same process rate continues in the coming days, it will take 8 years to complete processing the over 800 Burmese nationals. Also the result of those interviews conducted in October 2000 has not been announced either, which is a very discouraging and disheartening prospect we are facing in the coming days and months. For us the future is not bright; it is indeed bleak! Can we make a humble request to the US INS to speed up processing our applications?
Our Future: We look forward to the day when we can live our lives with security and peace and freedom. With God’s help, you – citizens of the USA – are our future! Just as God provided the ancient suffering Israelites their Moses to lead them to the promised land, you are our Moses at this time in our history to lead us into the promised land, called the United States of America.
May God bless each one of you in all your undertakings.
Guam. January 24,2001