Fewer activists seek refuge along Thai border area

MYANMAR MORASS: Times have changed since student protesters fleeing the junta's power in 1988 found safe havens in the east of the country


Mon, Oct 29, 2007 - Page 5

Nearly 20 years ago, thousands of student activists from Myanmar fled to this border region, determined to wage an ultimately doomed guerrilla war against a military that had crushed their movement.

Victims of malarial mosquitoes, the bullets of a vastly superior force and their own infighting, the young jungle warriors withered, many becoming disillusioned exiles scattered from Australia to the US.

Some expected a similar exodus following the recent suppression of another pro-democracy uprising in the military-ruled nation, but only a few have so far sought refuge along the rugged, 1,800km Thai-Myanmar border region.

Flight is more difficult, there are now no longer welcoming "liberated zones" and pro-democracy activists believe that victory can come only by fighting the junta from within.

"The reason the vast majority fled to the border in 1988 was because they wanted to start an armed insurgency against the government and were hopeful the United States in particular and other Western countries would be willing to train and arm them," says Thant Myint-U, himself an exile and author of a recent book on Myanmar, The River of Lost Footsteps.

"This time the people have no similar illusions," he said.

The few who have managed to reach sanctuary along the border invariably say they intend to return home in the near future.

"At first we did not want to come here. We wanted to hide inside, lay low and then come out to fight again," said Ye Htun Kyaw, 33, a former political prisoner who fled as he was about to be arrested for taking part in the protests.

In 1988, the military regime was in a state of near collapse following the uprising, allowing a window of opportunity for those who wanted out. And the Karen and other ethnic minority insurgents then controlled large swaths of the border area which offered safe haven.

The government this time never lost control, and the insurgents have either laid down their arms or have lost virtually all their territory to the junta's army.

"I got through because I have 20 years of experience in such things. I used a fake ID card, disguised myself and had friends along the way when I needed them," said Hlaing Moe Than, 37, who spent more than eight years in prison after taking part in the 1988 uprising.

The veteran activist, who was also about to be arrested last month, said he had to fake his way through a dozen military checkpoints between Yangon and the border.

Buddhist monks, who led the protests and remain prime targets in a nationwide manhunt, are particularly handicapped.

"It is difficult for monks to escape," said U Kovida, pointing to his bald head.

The 24-year-old monk, one of the leaders most wanted by the military, was on the run for three weeks, trying to grow some hair, replacing his robes with street clothes and wearing sunglasses.