U Tay Zaw is wrapped in a traditional monk’s attire of saffron and maroon coloured robes. He clears his throat and shows me what he has learned in his most recent English class. It is a phrase that he and 12 of his colleagues have constructed. Eleven of the students are from Burma, his homeland, and they all share similar stories of fleeing under persecution from the military.
Behind the monk reads a message written on a whiteboard with a faded marker. It says, “In the world there is much unhappiness, man-made or natural disaster, war, anger and disease”.
If this sentence is designed to reflect the current political, social and humanitarian turmoil in U Tay Zaw’s homeland, then the faded writing represents just how strongly the message is imprinted in the minds of the public, based on the ability of receiving accurate reports from within Burma.
This is a land where all foreign media outlets are banned. A report released by the Thai-based human rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) by April 2009, 50 media activists were held in prisons around the country. These are just confirmed cases.
“Our language tutor asked that we make up a sentence based on how we feel, so the students put this together,” U Tay Zaw says.
Many individuals from Burma living in Australia all have a story of survival to share in which the common theme evolves around being on the run from the military regime.
U Tay Zaw lifts up his robe and shows his ribcage before recounting the first of many instances in which he escaped with his life.
“Two other monks and I were forced to dive into the river when military soldiers were firing at us. I hit a pipe when I entered the water, was knocked unconscious, and broke my ribs.”
U Tay Zaw is a member of the ’88 Generation’. Like many Burmese community members living in Melbourne, U Tay Zaw’s taste for political activism began shortly before the first of Burma’s many dark hours in recent history. As a 24 year old in Mandalay, he became heavily involved during the 1988 People Power revolution which saw monks, students, civilians and even some members of the military take a stand against the leaders of the junta.
“I was a member of Red Garuda [named for a mythical half human creature] group in Mandalay. My job was to protect civilians, students and other monks. At the same time, I preached to members of Burma’s non-Buddhist minority groups not to riot, just demonstrate. They obeyed these requests.”
Surveillance from military intelligence members, police officers, rich civilians with high connections to the government and poor people desperate for money was a part of daily life for U Tay Zaw. With tens of thousands of people, including monks, students, civilians and even police and army members dissatisfied with the military regime’s leaders taking to the streets across Burma in human waves, the country was brought to a standstill for 40 days.
Then suddenly, upon orders from the regime’s leaders, soldiers opened fire on the streets into crowds of people. Three thousand unarmed civilians were massacred.
U Tay Zaw went into obscurity for a number of years, hotly pursued by the military. He trekked through forests and sought refuge in monasteries. Along the way, he gave speeches about Buddhist philosophy, politics and distributed anti-government flyers at night when the military was not on patrol. U Tay Zaw’s movements were constantly monitored by spies but earned the trust of village inhabitants.
Assisted by monks unions, members of the National League for Democracy and other opposition groups, he occasionally distributed pro-democracy and anti-junta pamphlets in nearby cities, a move which saw the monk apprehended by the military.
In the run-up to the country’s ill-fated 1990 elections where the military refused to accept defeat at the hands of the National League for Democracy, U Tay Zaw was arrested by military authorities and incarcerated in Gyopin Oat District police station for seven days.
“Back then, Mandalay had a reputation of being a home for monks with a political agenda. The authorities assumed that because I had just recently arrived from Mandalay, I was a troublemaker.” He then proceeds to climb onto the table before sitting upright and placing his legs in front of him, showing me the seated position in which he was forced to adopt. Pointing to his shins, he begins to describe the ordeal he faced.
“My ankles were in shackles and I was beaten with a padouk [a 3 feet long hard wooden stick]. Every time officers asked me a question, I was struck hard. Officers belted my shins, threatened me with 10 years imprisonment, shone bright lights in my face, and kicked and punched me in the back.”
This treatment has left U Tay Zaw with a physical imbalance. But it is the psychological scars that bear testimony to survivors of politically motivated torture in Burma. He jeopardised his neutrality by criticising the junta over a water and dam construction project in Myawadi, Karen State. He encouraged civilians to protest against what he felt was an injustice towards the people living in the town.
By refusing to remain silent, U Tay Zaw became a target of hatred for the authorities along with other civilians in the town. “They tried to link me with the Karen National Union (KNU) and other opposition groups,” he says. Burmese army members blocked civilians from delivering alms to him. They also attempted to force him to deliver a speech, telling everybody not to oppose a water and dam construction project and not to plan any demonstrations.
“In Burma, monks are handed a piece of paper by members of the military regime and are pressured to read it word for word. If a monk does not obey the authorities and tries to add in their own words or feelings, then the authorities will not give any food or medicine to any monk. They will also cut off all electricity to the town.”
“The monks tried to build a pagoda on some land that they owned, but in January 2000, the head of authorities in Myawadi had previously sold the land to a rich Thai businessman known as Chonbon without consulting any monks or civilians.”
The land, U Tay Zaw says, was illegally obtained by the military junta. The authorities made a deal with Chonbon. He would receive half of the land and the other half would be designated for a water and dam project. The land sold to Chonbon would be used to build new municipal offices.
Myawadi is separated from the Thai border by Mount Wartaw. Residents live at the mountain’s base on the Burmese side of the border. The authorities required land at the top of the mountain, where the monks were building their pagoda. The land owned by the monks was taken by the authorities because it formed part of a vital supply route where the water from the Thoungyin River, or the River Kwai, would be lifted over the mountain using a generator and sent flowing downstream to the town’s residents to the dam constructed to the mountain base.
U Tay Zaw alleges that Chonbon used the identity of Htun Lwin, a local merchant, to purchase the land for more than 200 million Burmese Kyat. Lwin, according to U Tay Zaw, ensured that each junta member received their share of the land sale price. The military authorities profited the proceeds. Monks and civilians did not receive any financial compensation for the illegal sale of their land.
Civilians regularly came to him confessing that they were forced to spy on monks in Myawadi. However, one spy tipped him off.
An anonymous police intelligence officer passed on a letter to U Tay Zaw which read, “If you receive this message, run away.”
With the help of other paramilitary officers who intentionally created a diversion by deliberately heading in the opposite direction in which U Tay Zaw intended to flee, only one obstacle separated him from safety.
“I crossed the Thoungyin River with only one thought on my mind; get to Thailand alive. Although the water levels reached the neck, these were the longest seven minutes of my life. I did not look back once.”
Having safely reached the border, news filtered through that several people who had contacted him in Myawadi had been arrested. They were repeatedly beaten by military officers, furious at news of U Tay Zaw’s escape and anxious to know his whereabouts. U Tay Zaw continues to receive news about how the people of Burma feel regarding the 2010 election. “People are dissatisfied. They know the military junta will win and they plead for intervention from the international community before the elections take place.”
The Burmese population are also less than flattering in their thoughts of Ibrahim Gambari, the Special Envoy for Burma appointed by the United Nations, U Tay Zaw says.
“He is a puppet sent to please the military junta. If he was allowed to meet ordinary people in Burma, they would punch him.”
“He has two nicknames in Burma; Nanbathe [“smelly” in Burmese] and Gambari Kyanbathi [meaning “plan to mislead”].”
U Tay Zaw does not need any convincing of Aung San Suu Kyi’s innocence over reports that she breached the terms of her house arrest after the recent capture of American John William Yettaw. “I think he wanted to know more about Aung San Suu Kyi’s situation, especially how she managed to live under house arrest. U Tay Zaw feels that the junta are paranoid that he was bringing in strategies for a western-style democracy to be instilled in Burma, directly contravening the junta’s Roadmap to Democracy.
“If he [Yettaw] was sitting in front of me right now, I would ask him, ‘For what reason did you go and how do you think you can help?’ The Burmese people at home and in Australia dislike him. They feel that his actions were too close to the 2010 election and Aung San Suu Kyi’s release date.”
Having spoken with a revered member of Buddhist society, I became intent on finding out whether he felt that the military junta was capable of forgiveness. “Aung San Suu Kyi: The Voice Of Hope speaks of the concept of metta (loving kindness), and whether it exists within members of the SPDC,” I began. “Do you feel that they possess this quality and are capable of ever showing it to the people of Burma? How do you personally feel about the junta, considering that a member of military intelligence helped you escape Burma?”
“I do not discriminate against anybody based on race, colour and faith. I want everyone to be rich, happy and healthy. But at the same time, we also support civilians to help introduce positive political change,” he answers. As if sensing my curiosity had not been fulfilled, U Tay Zaw continues his response by issuing a prediction.
“The military believe they can live to rule with the privilege of power forever and ensure only they are wealthy. But they should also remember what happened to General Ne Win, the dictator who led the military coup in 1962. He believed that he was entitled to lead a bright life. Ne Win named himself President, Prime Minister and Military Chief, but died a lonely man. Only 17 people turned up to his funeral. If today’s leaders of the junta continue down their current path, not even seven people will watch them get buried. Nobody will miss them.”