Saturday, January 12, 2008

Beyond 1988—Reflections -The Catapult Threat

September 26, 1988, Thabyay Kan village

One week has passed since the military coup—and what a week it has been! Hiding, evading the newly deployed soldiers and police, arrival in my hometown, then the day-long walk to the estuary of the Sitting River, where the Gulf of Mataban begins.

For the moment, our group—14 from my hometown and two from a nearby village—felt safe in the village. It was a backward area, without paved roads or telephones. There were no soldiers here—yet—and although the area had a large police station, we were not too concerned. Villagers and police alike relied for transport on the labyrinth of rivers connecting the gulf. Cars and buses could only be driven on dry riverbeds in the summer, from January to May.

I awoke from a good night’s sleep, hoping at last for a day to rest and reflect on the rapid chain of events that had set us on our unexpected journey. Ahead of us lay the gulf, with the “jungle”—or “liberated areas” of Karen and Mon resistance fighters—awaiting us on the other side. All we had to do was find a boat. Yet we felt a hint of apprehension at venturing into the unknown.

Soon after rising, we visited the local monastery. The abbot gave us his blessing, and together we prayed for the dead on the streets of Rangoon and for the swift arrival of democracy to our homeland.

That day, we had our most lavish meal since the tumultuous political revolt began three months earlier. Our host, a lady in her late fifties, was a relative of Zaw Gyi, my childhood friend. Although happy to see him, she did not ask us many questions. Like other villagers we had seen on our journey, she had probably heard rumors of students leaving for the “jungle.”

The BBC had broadcast news of events in Rangoon, and the exodus of students, with armed ethnic leaders also giving interviews about the sudden arrival of students in their areas. Just three days earlier, I heard Saw Moreh, a Karenni rebel leader, telling the BBC that the resistance had M16s, AK 47s, and other weapons ready to arm students willing to fight the Burmese military. There were already rumors about planes dropping weapons. Such statements greatly encouraged would-be student rebels.

While fleeing the military dragnet, we and many other political activists came to believe that the only way to bring democracy to Burma was to fight the military. In the words infamously uttered by Gen Ne Win before demolishing Rangoon University’s historic student union building in his war against unarmed students in 1962, we were ready to go “sword to sword, spear to spear.” It was romantic idealism, sure, but the mayhem in Rangoon and elsewhere left us with no choice—there was no return.

After lunch, we returned to the house where we had stayed the night. Drowsy from the heavy meal, I decided to take a nap, while Zaw Gyi and a few others who knew the village went to enquire about boats to cross the gulf.

My dream of a perfect day was shattered about 2 p.m., when I awoke to a sudden commotion and shouts. Dazed, I got up and looked around, and realized the house was empty. Outside, I saw my friends restraining a shouting man, and thought there was a fight.

But when someone in our group cried, “U Min Han is here,” I awoke completely. I knew why he was here; two of his sons—middle school students—were with us. I had asked them not to come with us, but they were adamant. So we had given in. But I never anticipated what would happen less than 24 hours after we arrived in the village.

Stepping outside, I saw U Min Han lunging forward to attack one of his sons. There was nothing I could do. U Min Han, like my father, worked in the government’s agricultural trading corporation. He was a very close family friend. But I feared him more than my father because he was always ready to berate me when I misbehaved or sometimes just over the shoddy way I wore my longyi.

Finally, my friends persuaded him to go inside and talk. I was asked to join the discussion. We sat in a circle, with U Min Han on one side and his two sons on the other, separated by us. As we began, U Min Han simply asked his sons to go home with him. They refused. Then he asked them again to go back with him.

He said: “Aung Naing (referring to me) has a degree and is old enough to take care of himself.” “Look at you”, he said to his elder son. “You have not even passed the middle school exam.” He was right; the boy had failed his middle school government exams repeatedly.

Yet his two sons were adamant. “I am going to fight for democracy,” the elder insisted. “I am going to the jungle.” U Min Han was visibly angry, though he tried hard to remain calm. Yet I knew his sons were trying his patience. Then, when the sons said “no” for the third time, he suddenly grabbed his lwel ate, or shoulder bag, and pulled out a catapult and a handful of dry mud pellets.

He immediately aimed the slingshot at his sons. All of us were totally taken aback. His sons jumped backward covering their faces. Catapults and mud pellets do not kill, but they can blind if the eyes are hit. Stunned and alarmed, we begged him to put down the weapon. He refused, threatening to use it against his disobedient sons.

I sympathized with him, though every time he pulled the leather strap back, as if to shoot his sons, I wanted to laugh. I did not, though, and in the end his threat worked and the two sons agreed to go home.

That afternoon we packed our bags, and left for what we thought was a more secure location—a monastery on a small island two miles away. The island was called “Aung Naing,” which I thought was a good omen, and I expected it would be a quiet refuge until we got our ride. Yet more eventful days lay ahead.

Source: Irrawaddy News

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