By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 28, 2007
MAE SOT, Thailand -- This bustling border town has long been a magnet for refugees fleeing Burma's repressive military government and searching for a better life. But many arriving now, on the run from authorities for their role in organizing pro-democracy rallies last month, are not looking to settle here. They are preparing for their return.
"We are living for democracy and human rights, not for ourselves," said Hlaing Moe Than, 37, as he sat on the tile floor of an empty apartment where he lives here, a single fluorescent bulb buzzing over his head.
Chain-smoking from a plastic bag of cigarettes on the floor beside him, Moe Than described days filled with media interviews since he arrived Oct. 7 and calls from his contacts still in Burma who have so far eluded capture. "We cannot allow any kind of dictatorship inside Burma" to continue, he said. "We have to increase our struggle."
Revolutionary fervor, not despair, has gripped this town, which for years has been a base for pro-democracy forces. At the office of the National League for Democracy, the Burmese opposition party led by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, staff work round-the-clock providing services for refugees and organizing media interviews to help keep international attention on the situation in Burma. On Friday, every nook of its office was filled with journalists talking to recent arrivals.
An organization of former political prisoners also has an office here, where it documents and distributes lists of people arrested by Burma's ruling junta. Its network of contacts is strong, forged over 20 years by people who have all been jailed -- many more than once -- for their political activities, activists say.
"They are all my best friends," said Moe Than, who has been jailed twice. "They all are also my leaders."
During the protests last month, his job was to organize demonstrations in his home town, Kyauk Padaung, near Mandalay, Burma's second-largest city. He was the group's "hidden fruit," he said, explaining that if "most of them were arrested, I should try to carry on their ways."
Burma's ruling junta, meanwhile, continues to hunt down and arrest not only those connected with the protests but even those associated with pro-democracy movements in the past.
On Friday, the day after an official met with Suu Kyi to explore opening a dialogue with the opposition, the government dispatched riot police armed with automatic weapons to an area in Rangoon near several Buddhist shrines, apparently to prevent any new demonstrations in the country's largest city during a religious holiday, according to news service reports.
"The pro-democracy forces are very weak. I don't imagine they are going to topple the government," said Dominic Faulder, a British journalist who was based in Burma during an uprising in 1988 that was crushed by government troops, resulting in the deaths of thousands of people nationwide.
But the military junta, Faulder said, has repeated mistakes made 20 years ago by allowing the country to grind to a halt. That, combined with assaults against the country's revered Buddhist monks, may have "lit a slow-burning fuse."
"The military is twice as big now as it was then," Faulder said. "It's a mistake to assume all members are happy and well taken care of. They're not. There are elements that are corrosive and that could tilt the balance."
Activists are now waiting to see what, if anything, comes from various diplomatic efforts. United Nations envoy Ibrahim Gambari is on a six-nation mission in the region. The Burmese government invited Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, a U.N. human rights expert, to visit Burma early next month. The government might be using the meetings to buy time, experts say, hoping that world attention will move elsewhere.
For those fighting the government, last month's protests were important not only because of the leadership role taken by the monks, who drew hundreds of thousands to the demonstrations, but also because of the number of teenagers who participated, especially in the latter days after the government crackdown on Sept. 26 and 27.
Until then, much of the anti-government activity in Burma had been organized by 88 Generation Students, a group of activists who helped lead the 1988 protests.
"I feel for the teenagers. They want to be free from the oppressive life," said an opposition activist who arrived here from Burma on Oct. 21 and spoke on condition of anonymity because she fears for her family.
The woman, who marched with students Sept. 27 and 28 in downtown Rangoon, said she saw teenagers being beaten and dragged into trucks. But she also noted that other young people quickly joined the remaining marchers. "I thought, 'This time we can finish the movement,' " meaning they could force the generals to turn over power.
Her own 19-year-old daughter was not involved in the protests but busy finishing school exams, she said. Despite her own involvement in the protests, the woman believed that her daughter had nothing to fear. She was wrong.
When police could not find the woman after days of searching, they went to her house at 1 a.m. on Oct. 10 and arrested her daughter, she said. The woman, who had severed contact with her family to protect them and had been staying in different houses every night, learned of the arrest the following afternoon from another opposition member. She does not know where her daughter is.
She wept as she told the story. "I thought she would be fine," she said.
The woman said she fled for Thailand only after realizing that she was endangering friends who had taken her in. She noticed they would not sleep for fear she would be discovered in their house. Police trucks had rolled through Rangoon neighborhoods broadcasting from loudspeakers that if anyone was found harboring a protester, they too would be arrested.
She came out of hiding and left for Thailand with a sense of fatalism, she recalled. She gave her real name when she bought her bus ticket and she carried her ID card. "If they know me, I don't care if I'm arrested," she said.
Now in Mae Sot, she has only two goals. The first is to find out what has happened to her daughter. The second, "I'll continue the movement."