Burma: State of Fear

Burmese in exile share their stories about leaving the country.


I did not want to leave my country, Burma. I love my country -- the people, the culture, the food. But when I went on a trip to Thailand with my girlfriend (now my fiancée), I got a job offer to work for the Irrawaddy magazine. It is the leading publication promoting press freedom and democracy in Burma. The Burmese government despises the magazine and its work. I knew that if I took the job, I would be exiled from my country. I would not be able to see my parents, relatives or close friends again. It was the hardest decision I ever had to make.

I decided to take the job. I knew it was the best way I could help my country.

When I was in Burma, I worked at the Myanmar Times weekly newspaper as a desktop publisher for three years. The paycheck was enough to live on, but it was not enough to support my family or rent my own apartment. I had friends who were working at other publishing companies, and they were barely surviving.

After the banking crisis in 2003, all the prices went up like a rocket. It was certainly a crisis. Before that, we could go out at least twice a week and drink for hours at bars or nightclubs to wash away our stress and problems. After the crisis, we could go out barely once a month. One of my friends had to sell his status symbol, a mobile phone, and another had to sell his car to survive. My friends from rural areas could no longer visit downtown, where I worked. We lost communication because they did not have mobile phones or even landlines.

"The situation is getting much worse," reported a friend in Burmese who recently visited Thailand. "If you don't have a job in the city, it is not possible to survive. Higher taxes, higher cost of living and more government oppression. People are not innocent as before. They only care how to make money to survive. They have no time to think about politics and social issues. I don't want to live in Burma," he ended with a sigh.

Education in Burma is a joke. The year after I graduated from high school, in 1996, another student demonstration broke out in the streets. The government beat up students and shut down the schools nationwide. The beautiful and historic Rangoon University, where all Rangoon students dreamed of attending, was closed for five years and has still not completely reopened.

Government propaganda states that Burma is a free country and that its people are living in harmony. But it's not true. The Shan ethnic group hates the dominant Burmese. The Karen ethnic group despises the Burmese too. They have good reason. The military government kills thousands of ethnic minority people and steals and destroys their land. I wish there was no hate between the Burmese and other ethnic minority groups. The regime has created the tensions and animosity for its own purpose: to rule the country forever.

However, government propaganda does work in some ways. I was ignorant of the regime's atrocities until I worked in exile in Thailand. I met with human rights activists, and I learned more and more about these burning issues -- landmines, damming of rivers with no regard for the environment, use of forced labor and forced relocation.

I felt good about working as part of the Burmese democracy movement and for freedom and human rights in my country. But I realized I needed more education and more experience to support my country in the future. It has also been getting more and more difficult for Burmese exiles to live in Thailand.

After two and a half years working as a designer at The Irrawaddy and doing freelance work for other exiled media and human rights organizations, I decided to join my fiancée in the United States. Now I am with my love and hope to gain higher education to support the democracy and freedom movements inside and outside of Burma. -- Aung Moe Win

Aung Moe Win, 28, arrived in the United States on October 19, 2006. He now lives in Los Angeles.

I left Burma in 1989 after the uprising, when I was 26 years old, two years after my mom passed away. The currency was devalued, and we couldn't use any of our existing money. We cashed out all our investments and gold to pay for my mom's hospital care.

By the time of the uprising, I was working at Rangoon University as a tutor while I was studying for my master's degree. I was fired from the university for taking part in the demonstration and for refusing to sign their agreement and provide them with the names of the student leaders.

But I kept on helping the students and the people who were homeless. I was put on a list of people to be arrested. I was hiding in many different places but finally managed to leave Burma to study in Japan. I got political asylum to the United States in 1997. I had to struggle with Japanese emigration before I left Japan.

The situation in Burma has never been good, but recently there has been some peaceful movement in Burma -- people wearing a white shirt to support the democracy movement or religious groups praying at the monasteries or churches or mosques. This is an improvement. It hasn't changed the situation yet, but it helps to stimulate the people and gets attention in the international media. To my surprise, a lot of people participate in these movements. I really bow to these brave people.

I think in the very near future the regime will change. The whole of Asia is rising, and Burma cannot be left alone. What inspired me most when I went back to Burma two years ago is the people's spirit. They never give up. We hope that Aung San Suu Kyi will be still alive when we get democracy.

Name withheld at author's request.

I left Burma in 1985. I was 28. The United States granted me political asylum in 1996, which is when my daughter and husband came here. In Burma, I worked at my father's company (Chain Brothers' Coastal Liners) as an accountant. Although our family was above the middle class, we could see what the future would be like for Burmese people. Education could not guarantee a job. Besides which, we could not continue to do our business, since all private companies were nationalized in 1965. My father was sentenced to three years in prison, and almost all of his business was nationalized. My mother, my eight siblings and I met with many local authorities and urged them to release my father and not to seize our residence at Ye. Whenever we visited the prison, we were filled with sadness and resentment when we saw our dad in prisoner clothes. He was not allowed to read books, newspapers or letters; my mother wrote micro letters on a cigarette and gave it to my dad via prison workers. Of course, this was illegal and involved bribes.

Ever since 1972, my father has encouraged his children to leave the country. My brother visited Malaysia and Thailand in 1973. Eventually, he went to Singapore and from there started to work on a foreign ship. I visited Thailand in 1979 and then left for Japan to study international law. My elder brother who stayed in Burma was imprisoned twice, once for two months, the second time for 13 years.

As the military has power and guns, they do not want to share power with the people. They are afraid of the people. As for the people, they are full of resentment and mistrust. They are all human beings who want to live with dignity. We need a mediator who can persuade both sides to leave hatred behind and think about our common interests. -- Htay Htay Kyi

Htay Htay Kyi lives in Sunnyvale, California. An accountant and specialist in the law, she helps other refugee Burmese families in the United States. She is also a founder of the Burmese American Women's Alliance.

I left Burma in 1974 under good circumstances. My parents migrated to the United States. My struggle was more as an expat in the United States in 1988. I took part in various protests and demonstrations held in San Francisco and Los Angeles. In the 1990s, I went to the refugee camps along the Thai/Burma border five times to provide cash and other supplies. I was one of the first people to start using the Internet to spread the news. This was before the Internet was a household item.

The solution for Burma is very obvious but not simple. The government needs to be removed. This government is a totalitarian government run by uneducated military men. I could earn a Ph.D. degree talking on this subject.

Name withheld at author's request.

I was one of the student leaders who had organized the nationwide popular uprising in Burma in 1988, calling for democracy, human rights and an end of military rule. I served as vice chairperson of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), the largest national student organization in Burma, which had been outlawed by the military junta. As a leader, I was arrested in April 1989 by military intelligence and sentenced to four years' imprisonment with hard labor by a military court. I was released from prison in July 1993. I was 31 when I was released.

Since then, I have been frequently harassed by military intelligence and local authorities. They came to my house at midnight to check whether I was at home. They followed me wherever I went. They threatened friends and neighbors not to befriend me. They put pressure on potential employers not to hire me. Sometimes, especially when some foreign dignitaries or U.N. special envoy was visiting Burma, I was detained for a few days by military intelligence to prevent me meeting with them. I realized that I would be continuously harassed and rearrested at any time, so I decided to leave the country. In March 1995, I left Burma at the age of 33. -- Aung Din

Aung Din is policy director for the U.S. Campaign for Burma in Washington, D.C.

I I am a freelance writer whose works used to appear in periodicals, including some weekly journals. I wake up at six almost every morning. I check written scripts to correct spelling mistakes and rearrange grammar. Much more important, I have to analyze my works thoroughly, as there are very strict rules provided and ratified by our infamous government institution, The Board of Scrutiny on Literature, which is responsible for controlling the publication of all books. Frankly, writers' intentional or absent-minded attempts to slightly portray social or political upheavals around them, even using surrealistic images of daily life, means an end to their careers. A pen name someone has preserved for a lifetime can become useless overnight if it is no longer allowed to appear in any kind of book or magazine. My message is, leave freedom of writing alone, and leave freedom of speech alone. The dreams of the Burmese people seemingly will never come true, whereas people from all over the world have been enjoying rights that we should have had for years.

Sent by email from Rangoon, October 23, 2006. Name withheld at author's request.

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