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The Students Struggle On

Asiaweek, 28 October 1988

It was the first real battle for Mya Thein and Maung Chain. The two 20-year-old university students from Rangoon had undergone elementary arms training in the capital before joining the Karen National Union (KNU), one of the major Burmese ethnic rebel groups operating along the Thailand-Burma border. But it was in the thickly forested terrain around the Burmese Army's southern outpost of Mae Ta Waw that Mya Thein and Maung Chain goe their first taste of insurgent warfare. Along with other students who had fled to the border after the Sept. 18 military takeover, the two greenhorns were assigned by the KNU to a heavy weapons unit which had been pounding Mae Ta Waw with mortar barrages since fighting began Sept. 26. In the final assault on Oct. 13, Karen commandos climbed a steep cliff to trap the Burmese soldiers on the heights overlooking the winding Moei River. Some 500 government troops put up stiff resistance, but the strategic camp finally fell to the jubilant Karens and their enthusiastic student supporters. "It was good revenge on the military regime," exulted Mya Thein. "Though we're not professional, we have joined a professional army. And we'll keep on fighting until we get true democracy."

Student rebels 1988

The Mae Ta Waw victory was one of the KNU's biggest in a decade. At his headquarters further north in Manaplaw, KNU leader Gen. bo Yua said he had been waiting for four years to attack the camp, which the Burmese Army captured from the Karens in 1984. The opportunity presented itself after anti-government agitation erupted in towns and cities around the country. Thai border police said that almost half of the 800 Burmese soldiers previously positioned at Mae Ta WAw had been withdrawn in August and September to deal with the popular uprising.

The toll at Mae Ta Waw was high. Thai sources said 185 Burmese soldiers were killed or wounded, while Karen casualties were believed to be greater. Some 50 Burmese students reportedly participated in the attack, although they were kept on the sidelines. According to a KNU spolesman known as David, 22 students were led by Col. Htay Maung, commander of the KNU's 7th Brigade, in the actual assault on Mae Ta Waw; 28 other joined the 21st Battalion commanded by Maj. Lar Moo in cutting off the Burmese Army's supply routes. "We let the students join our armed forces, " noted David, "but we cannot let them fight the Burmese alone. They still lack experience."

to overcome that deficiency, some new recruits have been receiving military training at the rebel base. so far, 461 Burmese students have taken shelter at the KNU's Kler Day camp, about 80 km north of Thai border town of Mae Sot; an other 3,000 stay at the Karens' Thay Baw bo position further south. While the bulk of the dissidents have joined the Karens, a few hundred others have reportedly sought refuge at camps controlled by other armed minority groups such as the Mon National Liberation Army.

Many of the young radicals had been part of the Rangoon-based All Burma Federation of Students' Unions, led by enigmatic student activist Min Ko Naing (see interview). Recent tactics of resistance adopted by the ABFSU included making contact with the insurgents while pursuing democracy through political means. Towards that end, the federation decided to apply for registration as a party with the elections commission, which was set up by the ruling military regime to make preparations for promised multi-party polls. It will be a long wait for the 22 groupings that have been legally recognised so far. On Oct. 14, the five-man election commission said balloting would be held only after pre-election work was finished by January(1989), after which political parties would be consulted on a date for staging polls. the same week, the government-backed National Unity Party (NUP) formerly the Burma Socialist Programme Party founded by longtime strogman Ne Win, registered with the elections commission. Under election laws, NUP first divested itself of BSPP assets and staff.

Despite the commission's announcement, observers believed the poll date would be determined only when law and order was restored in Burma -- as putsch leader Gen. Saw Maung had repeatedly stressed. Although post-coup violence had lessened in urban areas, shootings of suspected looters by security forces were still being reported. International aid workers taking emergency medical supplies across the country were quoted as saying that in the hospitals they visited, half the patients had bullet wounds, apparently inflicted by soldiers. Most of the remaining patients were suffering from malaria, which had staged a serious comeback due to a shortage of preventive medicine. "It was a toss-up between malaria and wounds," a U.N. official told Asiaweek. Food relief in and around Rangoon was also being organised. The Interfaith Relief Committee, an agency backed by various religions, bought rice on the local market to distribute among thousands of poorer families. Petrol remained scarce.

The military junta had other woes. No country had so far recognised the Saw Maung Regime, which is widely considered still to be loyal to Ne Win. However, some foreign governments may soon soften their positions. Burma's state run radio reported early this month that the Chinese Embassy's commercial counselor in Rangoon had held a fete-a-fete with Burmese Trade Minister col. Abel. Noted one observer: "I think the Chinese are calculating that the military regime is going to make it through, so they had better get talking." Indeed, many Burma-watchers remain cynical about the promised polls. As one Bangkok-based diplomat put it succinctly: "Ne Win didn't get tossed out by massive street demonstrations. He's certainly not going to get tossed out by an election that he's able to control."


Fighting 'a Bad King'

Min Ko Naing, student leader 1988

As Burma's leading student activist, the man who called himself Min Ko Naing has become an almost legendary figure. The name itself, a non de guerre meaning "conqueror of kings," displays an audacity in keeping with the massive street demonstrations that nearly brought down the Rangoon government. Even at the height of unrest, Min Ko Naing had lain low. After last month's military takeover, rumours flew that he had fled to Bangkok. But he has remained in Rangoon, staying underground. A former Rangoon University zoology student, MinKo Naing has been organising dissident cells since 1984. He now heads the All Burma Federation of Students' Unions (ABFSU), formed in August. The federation, he says, has issued 30,000 membership cards out of some 40,000 applications nationwide.

A fortnight ago, the ABFSU decided on a two-pronged strategy of resistance in which 70% of the leadership would work towards achieving democracy through political channels, while the remainder would continue underground activity. As one student leader saw it, "if all 100% join the political party, there will be no one left to organise the people." Min Ko Naing says he fully supports the legal struggle, but he continues to take careful precautions against arrest by the military. When Asiaweek's Dominic Faulder met him at a secret rendezvous in a Rangoon suburb recently, the student leader concealed his face and surroundings before being photographed. With him were key lieutenants who also go by pseudonyms -- Moe Hean ("Thunder"), Moe Thee Zun ("Heavy rains") and Ye Naing Aung ("Vailiant Victory"). They deferred to Min Ko Naing as he answered questions forcefully and succinctly. Excerpts from the talk:

What is your strategy now?

We have given up armed struggle. We would like to avoid armed confrontation -- that is our desire. We want to pressure the army into forming an interim government. If we unite, we can succeed -- that is my belief. We want the opposition to unite and form an interim government .. We thought about it [armed struggle], but that would be the last resort. Many lives have been lost already. We want that to stop.

What have you been doing since August?

We tried to keep demonstrations within the law. To the people, we were already half the government. We maintained law and order successfully. with the help of the monks, we assumed civil administrative responsibilities at the ward and township levels. We also managed to supply food, especially rice. The people began to depend on us, and that really frightened the government.

Are you in touch with Burma's ethnic insurgents?

[Student leader] Maung Maung Kyaw has been given the responsibility of contacting the [rebel] Karens. We have to go two ways. If we can't have demonstrations here, the alternative is to attack the government.

Some suggest you are a communist.

[Laughs] I am a student who believes that the country should have democratic ideals. Le me pointout that this government labels anybody it is afraid of as communist. None of us are communist.

How do you view dissident leaders Aung Gyi, Tin U and Aung San Suu Kyi?

I support all three leaders. It's not an easy thing to say because as individuals they all came out [in protest against the regime]. I have no special preference for any one of them. We would like them all to confront the government. We don't place much hope in U Nu [an ex-premier who heads the opposition League for Democracy and Peace]; he's on his own but we have not neglected him.

We want to join forces; only then can we have a party. Since the government announced a multi-party system [on Sept. 10], some 20 parties have popped up. Every leader has different ideas. This we regret very much.

What will your strategy for the proposed multi-party elections ?

We think the election will not take place or will be very dirty. We have little faith in them.

The government broke the weeks-long general strike on Oct. 3. What has been your involvement in it ?

We have maintained secret links with the workers. Yes, they have gone back to work, but only to collect their salaries to buy food with, so they can come back stronger and continue the fight. They're not really working but using all their ingenuity to give the government a hard time. Passive resistance is one of the methods we're using in our struggle. We can't yet say exactly when the government will feel the crunch.

What do you see as the main obstacle to democracy ?

The military and the man who commands it. That person is U Ne Win. If I met Ne Win and I was in a patient mood, I would just ask him to leave the country. If I was in a bad mood, I might do something to him. I'll always be with the people. I'll never die. Physically I might be dead, but many more Min Ko Naings would appear to take my place. As you know, Min Ko Naing can only conquer a bad king. If the ruler is good, we carry him on our shoulders.


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