Victor Biak Lian
A former Chin revolutionary and Director of Operations, Euro-Burma Office
In Yangon, some rich people cried over their money, which they kept at home in gunny bags. People dared not put their money in the banks because they would be questioned about how they acquired that kind of money. Since it was a socialist government, no one was allowed to be too rich, except the families of those in power. For most people, their life savings became worthless after that hour. Just think about it for a moment. In other words, it was the same as if every person in the country had been robbed at once. This also hurt many armed groups. In one of the Kachin Independence Army operations I participated in long after the senseless act of demonetization by the Ne Win regime, I saw piles of bags of money in an orange garden. We made a bonfire of the money and warmed ourselves all night.
Note: Nowhere else in the world used notes denominated in units of 35 or 75 It has been said that Ne Win thought, by doing such a thing, evil spirits would prevent something bad from happening to him or to his government. Just think about it.
We, the students, also shared the sorrow of the people. It was the second day of university examinations and we were preparing to go out at that hour of 8 am. I lived at Lake road, which is now known as Kann Lan. After breakfast, when we were heading out to go sit for our examinations, I saw a large number of people crowding along the street in front of me. I listened to what they were saying. I entered a tea shop, in order to hear what was happening more clearly. The news was repeated every 30 minutes over the radio. After a few minutes, they announced that the examinations were postponed. We were shocked. At that time, I did not know if all the money I had in the world amounted to K100. But I was very angry because it was my life. Then they announced that all the universities had been closed and that all the students were required to go home.
At that time, Salai Van Ram Uk, who is now a well-known evangelist, and other leaders such as Salai Khua Uk Lian (CNF) and some other leaders from the Chin Literature and Culture committee, led us to see the Rector on the same day. The then rector of Rangoon University was Dr Chit Shwe and he had his office in the convocation hall building. We told him, “You closed the university and told us to go home and we have no money”. Since he didn’t know anything himself, he told us to see U Kyaw Myint, Director of Higher Education, instead. Earlier, there had only been about 20 or 30 of us, but by the time we reached the Dome (Higher Education Department) there were over 400 Chin students. We spent the whole day waiting without success. He came downstairs and told us that he had sent word to higher authorities and asked us to wait. We vowed not to go home until we heard something from him and kept on sitting there. Chin students were the only group that went there because we had heard that other students from faraway places had been promised they would be flown home by air. (At that time, there were also student movements in Mandalay and Mon yoa. But since I didn’t know about them at the time, I’m only writing about what happened in Rangoon University). Our main demands were for the authorities to send students from Northern Chin back home, via the Rangoon-Kale flight and then by car from Kale to our respective villages, and for students from Southern Chin to travel on the Rangon-Sittwe flight, and up to Paletwa as necessary, or by bus from Rangoon to Matupi, as far as the bus could go. Moreover, we demanded money for necessary expenses, such as the food and drink we would need on our way home.
By noon, officials of the Chin Party and Chin Council who were in Rangoon were asked to coax us into dispersing. As we did not consider it as official, we did not accept their coaxing. In the end, at around 4 pm, Education Minister U Kyaw Nyein, Deputy Minister Dr Maung Dee, and Chin officers, rectors and directors, all came to us together. U Kyaw Nyein said,
“What I am going to say is final. I am not going to repeat it. The moment you leave this place, the traffic police will commandeer all the motor vehicles plying Prome Road and go with you to take all your belongings from the hostels. Then at 6 pm, each of you will be given K 300 at the Convocation Hall. From there, the police will send you to the railway station. The train will be waiting for you there. You will go by train to Mandalay. From Mandalay, you will be transported by two planes to Kale. It will go back and forth as many times as necessary to carry you all. From Kale, the Party and Council officials there will take responsibility for sending you to your own villages. Where bullock carts can go, bullock carts will transport you. Where horses can go, horses will carry you. Am I clear?”
His speech was comprehensive. There was nothing to add and nothing to deduct.
Note: Whether or not his promises were fulfilled will be our next topic.
As soon as U Kyaw Nyein’s speech ended, every motor car that was driving along Prome road was stopped by the traffic police. Each one of them took us to our hostels. Just think about it! The police stopped all the cars on the road and told them to bring us students to collect our belongings and then send us to the Convocation Hall. The police took note of the license numbers of all the cars and I hope they were given some compensation. Thus, at the Convocation Hall, we were given K 300 each at 6pm (All of the cash was crisp, newly printed notes and they even smelled sweet). Ten TE 11 trucks (Japanese-made) belonging to the Army were standing in line and we all climbed onto the trucks standing in front of the Convocation Hall. All the Army trucks were brand new and didn’t even have license plate numbers. After we had all been issued the new currency notes, the trucks took us to the railway station. Traffic police led the way and our vehicles didn’t have to wait anywhere on the road. When we reached the Rangoon Railway Station, soldiers were on sentry duty everywhere and there was nobody else to be seen at the station. We were the only passengers. But soldiers with rifles were everywhere in the station, guarding us. When we saw them, we were rather surprised.
The Rangoon-Mandalay Express train took all the Chin students to Mandalay. We enjoyed the trip very much. We had two or three guitars with us and we sang together. There were about 400 of us, including a large number of high school students. Nobody checked our tickets. We simply showed our student cards. In this way, we arrived in Mandalay the following morning. Like Rangoon, the Mandalay Station was also deserted. Soldiers on sentry duty everywhere were the only human beings we could see.
When the train slowed down, 10 miles before reaching our destination, soldiers could be seen on both sides of the train. When the train stopped at the station, a loudspeaker said, “Chin University Students, we, the elders of Party, Council and Lanzin Youth of Mandalay welcome you”. The then Mandalay Division Regional commander was U Ye Myint. Earlier, he was transferred from Chin State. It was he who welcomed us. Like in Rangoon, ten Army trucks sent us to the airport. Soldiers guarded us in front and back. As soon as we reached the Mandalay Airport, the Socialist Youth gave us food packets. As we were promised, there were two airplanes waiting for us. They were 44-seater Fokker aircraft. (Most of the aircraft used in Myanmar today are also Fokkers). The planes transported us in groups of 44 students per flight. One aircraft flew on the first trip. Another one followed for the second trip. They came back for the next trips. I was on the last trip. It was already late evening. We spent the whole day at Mandalay airport together with the late Uk Lian Thang of CNF, Pu That Ci and Sang Zel (Kawi Zel who is now living in Vancouver, Canada) and our friends from Falam. Together, we held a ‘stage show’ there, singing the whole day at the airport, and that was such a joyful moment.
The number of passengers on the last trip were less than 40. On the plane, the man sitting next to me was an intelligence officer. He gave me one 555 cigarette and we smoked together (smoking was permitted on the plane at that time). We arrived in Kale (Kalaymyo) at 6 pm in the evening. The Kale Airport was full of security personnel. As soon as we descended from the plane, we were met by the Party and Council members of Kale. They gave us food. We climbed onto a truck. We left at 8 pm in the evening for Hakha by TE 11 truck. There were only 11 of us. We arrived in Hakha the following early morning. We were surprised that it took us only one and a half days to reach Hakha from Rangoon. The reason for our surprise was because we were used to it sometimes taking us 10 days to reach Rangoon, when we traveled there to go to University. If we were lucky and our journey was smooth sailing, we expected it to take us one week. To reach Hakha from Rangoon in only one and a half days was really amazing. Minister Kyaw Nyein’s promise was fulfilled. What he said came true. They gave us K300 for free. We reached Hakha from Rangoon free.
Our universities were closed in September 1987. We were called to sit again for our unfinished examinations around mid-December, if I remember rightly. Then we went to sit our exams to complete them. In about one week, the results were announced. All those who appeared for the examinations were declared successful. They opened the universities again in the first week of January.
The Hakha University students held a fresher welcome at the Hlawka Lake on March 12, 1988. We enjoyed it very much. The following day on the evening of March 13, Engineering students of the Rangoon Institute of Technology (RIT) on Insein Road and the youths from the nearby neighborhood of Kyuh Kung quarreled and fought each other over not playing the songs they liked at a tea shop. When the fighting students invited their fellow students to join them as reinforcements, riot police were called. A student by the name of Maung Phung Maw was shot dead. (I have written about this only very briefly. I could go into more detail but let me stop here). The dead body of Phung Maw was placed in the RIT Compound. When the students came to look at the corpse, one after another, their blood boiled. However, the news spread like wild fire the next morning and shook the whole country, reaching us at RASU Main University campus. That was already March 15.
We were sitting at the canteen near Judson Church having tea. Everybody was talking about the incident at RIT a couple nights before. The University Compound was flushed with posters in red ink that said: ”The military shot and killed our fellow students. Shall we keep quiet and do nothing????” Then handwritten leaflets instigating students to act, were distributed everywhere. Soon, some lecturers and tutors came out in small groups. They walked around and removed the posters one by one. Asst. Prof Dr. Khuanga, Physics Dept., a Chin national, was one of them and he told us that he did not want us to participate. But a few minutes later, a Law student by the name Yu Yu Maw, came and invited us to come to the grounds in front of the Convocation Hall. All of us followed her to the Convocation Hall. Thousands of students were already gathering there. Soon, one student after another made speeches over the loudspeaker. One of them who spoke bravely, as I clearly remember, was Yu Yu Maw. Her address to the protest rally was very inspiring and powerful.
(Note: I met Yu Yu Maw again later, in Champhai refugee camp, a border town of India where a refugee camp was set up for the students by the Indian authorities in October, 1988)
After a considerable length of time, we went towards the RC-2 Hlaing University Campus. We planned to invite the students of RC-2 and combine together. We walked slowly from the Convocation Hall shouting some slogans and singing the National Anthem. We clasped each other’s hands. At the Sixth Mile of Prome Road (the end of the Inya Lake), we were prevented from going forward by barbed wire. Battle tanks and a large number of soldiers blocked us. Student leaders went to the soldiers and tried to negotiate with them. The student leaders were told that if the students went beyond the barbed wire barriers or pushed them, they would be shot at.
The students crowded the road from 6th Mile, where we were blocked, to the junction of Prome Road and Inya Road. Soon after, we heard very loud shouting from the back that riot police were coming from behind. When we turned back, we saw riot police beating the students at the end of the procession. Then we heard the reports of gunfire. On the left was Inya Lake and the only exit on the right was Kan Road. There were fences on the other sides. I jumped over a fence and ran up to Insein Road. Those who bore the brunt of the riot police’s attack were women who could not run. We led those we could help to jump over the fence. Those who couldn’t jump, we pushed over the fence. Some of the women found it difficult to move with their sarongs. We heard later that some of those who ran toward Inya Lake were drowned. I lost my slippers in the chaos. All the students they could arrest were put on trucks, but how many of them were taken is not known. Our procession came to an end with blood and pain.
The steps between Inya Lake and Prome Road were called “White Bridge”. We students renamed it “Red Bridge,” because of the bloodletting and mayhem that happened there. There were many Chin students in the crowd. The present leader of the CNF, Pu Khua Uk Lian, and Salai Cung Bik Ling (now in Geneva), were also among them. Many students from Falam, Haka and Matu also participated. Since I had lost my slippers, I dared not go barefoot along the road and slipped in between houses together with Salai Chan Thawng Ling (Vapual), and went back to my hostel. When we reached the Judson Student Centre, we checked ourselves (Chin students) and found out that all of us were safe. We were very relieved. The following day was March 16.
As the universities were not closed yet, we went to the University the next day. The atmosphere was different. No students were smiling. Some people advised us that Chin students should no longer take part in the uprising. I myself thought that it would be better for us not to participate. I thought it would be to our detriment. But some of our younger brothers were braver than ever. I met Saw Ke (Uk Lian Thang) for a moment. His blood was boiling over. Some of our friends attended a secret meeting of students who organized the events and told us what they were going to do.
At the time, I was the secretary in-charge of the Literature Dept. of the Chin Literature and Culture Committee and also the chairman of Haka University at Rangoon University. Salai Cung Bik Ling was the secretary. As a leader, I thought that it would be better not to participate, but I did not prevent anyone from participating. The grounds in front of the Convocation Hall were crowded again. We listened to speeches up to noon. Min Zay Yah (a Law student) and Yu Yu Maw (a Law student) were star speakers again. I intended to go home by noon. Again Yu Yu Maw appeared and prevented us from going home, stopping us near the Judson Church. She challenged us by saying, “Are you going home?” She looked like the tigress that she was. There was no fear whatsoever in her face. She wore a red scarf on her head and blocked us. In this way, we went inside again willingly without going home. The government sent word that we had to leave the place before 4 pm. They announced the order and then the students vowed not to leave, but to remain inside the University compound. I do not remember clearly what political demands were made. What they demanded was something like, “Down with Dictatorship”, “We want Democracy”, “We want to form a Student Union”. The Student Union was formed then and there.
Note: I think Min Zay Yah was elected chairman. (I am not sure of this. If I am mistaken, please excuse me. Those who were there and know better may correct me).
At 4 pm in the afternoon, a group of armed soldiers came from the main gate of University Avenue, another group from the gate of Judson Church and a third group from the direction of the Economics Department. We moved backward slowly and gradually. The soldiers entered from the different gates and closed in on us. Before long they fired into the air. We didn’t know from where the sound was coming from. We ran towards the hostels (Ava, Pegu, Pin Yah etc). We didn’t know what happened to the students they arrested, because there were too many of us fleeing. I ran with some others into University staff quarters. The house owners were alarmed, but they let us in, because they pitied us. When I reached the upstairs of the house I entered, I found that there were already seven students there. We sat quietly there. We heard the voices of soldiers near the house. The house owners locked the house from the outside and disappeared. But they returned home just before dark and told us to leave. Otherwise, they would suffer. They had heard the news that before long, the soldiers were going to check house by house. So we came out from our hiding place. We saw professors and lecturers going along the Chancellor Road in a group. We went up beside them, in order to leave by the gate. But the gate was locked. There was a small door for people to pass through and it was guarded by soldiers with rifles. They asked us where we were staying. We told them that we were staying at Ava Hostel and that we were going out to have meals. They let us go out. I reached the Judson Student Centre at about 8 pm. I saw quite a number of Chin students sitting there in a group. I joined them. They were pleased to see me. They had also stayed in hiding inside different hostels when the soldiers chased everyone. The soldiers had found them and taken photos of each of them, then let them go after the students made a promise. They also had to sign their names. It must have been a promise not to take part in any more demonstrations. Since they did not see me, they thought that I had been taken away to jail.
Note: I may have made mistakes about the precise days or months that each event happened. I request you in advance to understand if I have made mistakes. Next, I will write about what happened between March and August.
The University was closed indefinitely. During this time Uk Lian Thang (Saw Ke) and I stayed in a small hostel at the back of the Judson Centre. We met some Shan students there and exchanged gifts for remembrance. Then we all ate dinner together and they went home that same night. We Chin students went to the booking office of the airline as our home was far away. We were able to buy air tickets as students were given priority. Saw Ke and I returned to our hostel. We were reluctant to separate. Everybody knew that it was impossible to tell how long the university would remain closed. We flew to Kalaymyo the following day. I was met at the Kalaymyo Airport by Salai Sang Hlun (the brother of my future wife Khuang Khuang) and I stayed with him. (It was the second time I saw my future wife Khuang Khuang). Thus, we went home to Hakha and the students’ unrest ceased for a while. But the spirit was still alive. There was a student underground movement. In those days there were neither telephones nor the Internet like now. The fastest technology available was the wireless telegram message service. Since it belonged to the government, nobody dared to use it. It was an age when letters were the only means of communication.
For myself, I worked at the Public Works Corporation at Hakha as a laborer from March onwards. During that time it was enjoyable to have a radio. We used to listen to the BBC Burmese, Voice of America and Radio Peking broadcasts by the Burmese Communist Party (BCP) to hear the news or Burmese football results. Radio was the chief source of news and it was most enjoyable to listen to the reports from Rangoon of U Maung Maung and Christopher Gunness of BBC. Thus, the university was closed for the whole summer. High schools also had their summer holiday. High school students continued their studies when their schools reopened in June. At the beginning of July, it was announced that the universities would reopen. Some of our friends got letters of expulsion from the university. I do not remember who was expelled. They told me that my name was among the list of expelled students. The names, villages and bio-data of the students arrested in the Main Campus hostels in March had all been noted and each of their photographs had been taken. I have said that I was not arrested, since I was hiding in staff quarters! But the intelligence service seemed to know me anyway, as I was the leader of the Chin Literature and Culture Committee and Haka University students. So I was not sure whether to go or not when the university reopened in July. I did not tell my family but I was prepared. I was also watching how the wind was blowing in Rangoon.
On July 1, the day of the reopening of universities, student unrest resumed on the Main Campus. We listened to the radio every night to hear what was happening. The reports given by U Maung Maung were our main source of news. The trouble continued. The main gates were guarded by soldiers who watched all those entering and leaving through the gates. The students in Rangoon were planning to observe the Seventh of July. What is the Seventh of July? The Ne Win government had dynamited the Student Union building on 7-7-62. Since then, university students mourned the destruction of the building every year. After Ne Win came into power, disturbances often occurred between the students and the government. The most well-known among them were 7-7-62, the 1969 SEA Games, and the 1974 U Thant disturbances. Young people may not know who he was. U Thant was the Secretary General of the United Nations during 1961-71. He died in NY and his corpse was brought back to Myanmar. But the Ne Win government, without giving him due respect, secretly buried his body in a public cemetery. The students did not approve of these actions. They took the corpse and re-buried it on the Rangoon University main campus. This caused fighting between the government and the students, which led to shooting and killing. The trouble over the corpse of U Thant became one of the famous stories of the students. (Note: I had the chance to visit U Thant House last month with Dr. Lian Sakhong and Dr Sui Khar by the invitation of Ms Sofia, partner of Dr Thant Myint-U, a grandson of U Thant).
Since the universities were reopened, I thought I had to try to go back. If I was really expelled, I would come back to Hakha. If I was not expelled, I intended to finish my BSc degree.
Students from Hakha and Thantlang traveled together, reaching Mandalay on July 8. As I have said earlier, Rangoon was in turmoil. We boarded the Mandalay-Rangoon train that same day. On the train, we heard the news that the university would be closed again, beginning July 9. As we were already on the way, we thought that we might as well continue to Rangoon. When we arrived in Rangoon the following morning, Kawi That (the late That Ci, CNF) and I took our friends not to hostels but to the home of Pi Sui Em (the daughter of Pu Van Kulh). Pi Sui Em (who now lives in Seattle) was cousin of Uk Lian Thang. That was why Uk Lian Thang took us to her. The moment we arrived at the Railway Station, we could tell the atmosphere was bad. So, we decided to go first to Yan Kin, instead of the main campus.
In those days, the number of Chins who were living in Rangoon may have been less than 20 families. Today, I learnt that more than 60,000 (??) Chin live in Rangoon and the surrounding areas. I am told that the majority of Chin live in North Dagon.
Salai That Ci (I called him Ci Ku affectionately) and Uk Lian Thang (everybody called him Saw Ke) and I went to the main campus to see what the atmosphere was like in the evening. As there still were express buses, we took one of them part of the way. But since no vehicles going to the University Main Campus were allowed, we then had to walk on foot. But no! By the time we reached Inya Road and University Avenue, we heard reports of gunfire. It was likely around 5 pm. Since we couldn’t go toward the campus at all, we went to see Mr. Nelson Siangawr, at Chambery, in the part of University Avenue where teachers stayed. Soon after that we heard that a curfew order had been announced. The order was for everybody not to go outside after 6 pm, until 6 am the following morning. “What shall we do?” we wondered. Could we make it to Yan Kin before 6pm? There were no more buses. We continued to hear the sounds of gunfire. We were worried that we might not be able to reach Yan Kin within one hour on foot. Still, we decided to go anyway and try no matter what. Fortunately, we managed to reach Yan Kin at 6 pm on the dot.
The gate to the university campus was not only closed, it was fastened with chains by the soldiers. Nobody could come in or go out except the employees living inside the campus. We watched them from outside. There was no more U Chit tea shop, Judson Canteen or the Economics Canteen. The Convocation Hall, one of the university symbols, with the big Tit Poh Pin (banyan) tree in front, could no longer serve as a favorite hangout for loving couples. It was no longer possible to walk along Chancellor Road or the Inya Lake bund. Inya Lake was another symbol of Rangoon University. What we used to call RASU or RU, which used to be full of life had turned into an eerie ghost town, or a town cursed by evil spirits. The name of a song composed by Salai Tuah Aung was the “Story of Mala Saung” (Hostel Mala). It seemed the hostel was haunted very often! It was possible. Since so many students had been killed by soldiers, their ghosts may have visited the hostel in the form of their friends! I still could picture the RU of our days in my mind’s eyes. Any people who have ever studied at RU will also have stories to tell. Not only were the universities where we sought education closed, but the door to human knowledge was put under lock and key. Whatever it was, they closed the universities. The universities were closed. Period! We can say nothing more. If the universities were closed, the students had to go home. We just had to go home. It was the last time I left Rangoon University. It was the last time I left Rangoon as well.
I returned to my hostel. I had no belongings. A mother and her daughter owned our hostel. I was a good friend of the daughter’s. I entered the empty rooms, one by one. My Shan friend by the name of Bo Bo, had left a note on his table: “Ko Vic, if you come back to Rangon, I’ve left you a chessboard and draughts, in remembrance of you.” Another friend had written, “Ko Vic, if you want, you can take home this guitar, even though it is not a good one.” I returned to my room. I had almost nothing to my name except some books. Those friends of mine must have arrived in Rangoon before Saw Ke and I did, but then gone straight back home, as the universities were closed again. Had we managed to enter the campus on the night we arrived, we might have met some of our friends! I took my books one by one. I had read many books and some Burmese novels by Maung Tha Rah. I left some of the books I had. There were two or three books that I put carefully in a metal box, along with some text books, and locked it. Then I put the box on my bed. Since there were no curtains for the window, I tore my old Chin lungyi and hung it up instead. I also wrote a short letter. “May we meet again soon, in good health! ” In Burmese, “Makyami hma pian le sung si ciah me , Ko Vic ….”
Then I left for Kalay by air the next morning. Good Bye RU … Good Bye Rangoon …
By March, Rangoon had already been in pandemonium. By July, the government was desperate. The Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) held its Extraordinary Congress on July 23-26, 1988. At the meeting, the party chairman U Ne Win delivered a speech that surprised us all. “What do you want, a one party system or a multi-party system? We will hold a referendum in 45 days and an election in 90 days”. He announced that he would step down as Party Chairman and that San Yu, Aye Ko, Sein Lwin and Tun Tin would also all retire from the BSPP leadership. Up to this point, it seemed that all the turmoil we had been going through together had borne results! But his closing words cut people to the quick. It added fuel to the flames. It made the people’s blood boil hotter.
I have translated his last remarks as follows: “If you continue to demonstrate, the soldiers will take care of you. Soldiers never shoot into the air just to scare. They shoot straight. If you keep on making trouble, don’t think that you will get away with it!”
WoW … Having said that, U Ne Win didn’t even sit down. He simply left and went straight home. The conference was held at the Yangon Kyaikasan Grounds. It was the last time Ne Win was seen in public.
The BSPP Congress accepted the resignation of U Ne Win and San Yu, but did not accept the resignation of Aye Ko, Tun Tin and Sein Lwin. By the end of the Extraordinary Congress, the BSPP also rejected the multi-party system proposed by Ne Win and Sein Lwin was elected the BSPP chairman. This enraged people still further, because it was known that Sein Lwin was the one who gave the order to shoot the students on July 7, 1962, and the person who ordered the killing and arrest of students in the disturbances in March and July of 1988. As the country was not changing for the better at the time, the people, not just the students, were also waiting for an opportunity to strike. Underground movements were already strong. The people were waiting in agony, like a woman in labour, for what would happen next: not only in Rangoon, but also throughout the country. Would it be wrong to say that the BBC again united us? We listened to the radio morning and night. Then the month of August arrived.
As I have said earlier, I did not believe that the universities would be reopened. I was wondering whether it would be wise to join my friends and go to Mizoram and become a school teacher or not. I was still working as a laborer. I was tasked with measuring all the roads in Haka. Together with two other laborers, we spread a one hundred foot long steel chain along the road, stretch after stretch. From the junction of Haka Station to the head of the town, how many feet? From the Chin Oo Si building complex to the junction of Falam Road and Thantlang Road in Khuathar Ward, how many yards? We also measured the length of the road to Cawbuk and to Khuachung, from early morning till late in the evening. On the evening of 7 August, Saw Ke invited me to attend a meeting. I already knew what it was going to be about. After dark, more than 10 of us met in the Seino Library, above what is the present-day Haka Tennis Court. What we discussed was what we were going to do on “8.8.88.” Our leaders at the time were Saw Ke and Pu Solomon (now a Colonel in the Chin National Army). Since it was a university student movement, we were prepared to follow their leadership. After the meeting, I simply went home. What I was thinking hard about all night was whether to go to work, or to join the 8.8.88 movement the following day. I decided to do both. The university students and some Haka youth (Seino Bu) converged at the tennis court. Then, about 50 of us went to the Chin State Regional Party and Council office. This is what I still remember:
The Chin State Regional Party and Council members were getting together to hold a meeting. We didn’t know what they were discussing, but we knew they were thinking about what was happening on 8.8.88 across the country. No police or soldiers tried to stop us. We entered the room and gave the members the written paper we had brought along with us. They readily accepted it. We planned to proceed to the state high school, to invite the high school students to join us, and then hold a rally at the Haka Lansung (junction) and make speeches. However, I went to my workplace at that point, instead of the high school. Otherwise, my fellow workers who measured the length of the roads wouldn’t know what to do next. When I came back at noon, speeches were being made in the middle of the Haka Lansung. All the roads were crowded with people. Uk Lian Thang had already put a red scarf on his head. Pu Solomon, Lian Uk and Hmung Hmung (Sang Za Hmung) … etc., were very active. From the Haka youth group of Seino, my younger brother Aa Thiang, Haka Seino chairman Pu Cung Bik (Maung Maung), and Pu Zing Cung (Secretary General of CNF) and other Seino leaders (I can’t recall all their names) were also very active. The first day ended without anything untoward happening. When night came, we all listened to the BBC broadcast in groups, putting our ears close to the radio.
All the ‘striking camps’ in the whole country would soon face a crackdown…and Haka would be no exception. The demonstration in Rangoon against the government was the largest which took place in the country. It was the beginning of that historic day, “8.8.88” in Burma which nobody would ever forget. With the leadership of the students, our country had been plunged into turmoil beginning on March 13. In five months, the people and the students teamed up together and exposed their hatred of the government.
(Note: At that time, not only in Haka, but in all other towns in Chin State, people also demonstrated against the government. I have simply written about events in Haka because I was there at the time. There were also demonstrations in many villages).
August 15, 1988. I think it was around 12:00 midnight! They knocked at the door of my house violently. Judging by the noise of their boots, I could tell that there was more than one person. A car with its engine running was parked in front of the house. They could not wait patiently for my father to reach the door. They knocked again heavily. I knew very well what it was all about. I didn’t get up. My father and mother opened the door.
The house shook when they entered! Since I knew very well who they were looking for, I got up and came into the visiting room. Without saying anything, I took my jacket. But I had no time to take even a toothbrush. My mother told me that in the morning she would send me some tea and cakes to the jail. They did not put me in chains. When I climbed onto the car, I saw that five of my friends were already inside. By the time we reached the jail, there were ten of us altogether. We were kept in two rooms. It was not unexpected.
On August 15, my father was summoned by the Council office and was asked to sign that he would not allow his son to participate in the popular uprising. My father told me that he had done so. That was why I went to bed with peace of mind. I had expected this to happen. On August 12 or 13, when all the demonstrators reached the front of the township council office, the student leaders saw the telegram which had been sent to the township council, from the authorities above. It was read out loud before everyone. The message was an instruction to arrest all the student leaders. My name was among the names on the list. By this time, I was not really thinking of demonstrating among the people. I was thinking about joining my friends in Mizoram,to work. I was preoccupied with this idea. In the meantime, I continued working as a laborer. Since I was the leader of the Rangoon University students from Haka, my friends had actually asked me why I was not helping in the student movement. They asked me two or three times to lead them. Although I was not actively participating in the movement, I was still angry when they led me to jail on August 15.
Although my family brought me some coffee and cakes just before sunrise, they were not allowed in to see us. Unable to sleep because of the cold of the night, we chatted away the time. The police were still looking for some of our friends, who had not spent the night in their homes, but they did not make any more arrests. The real leaders in the daily demonstration were Solomon and Uk Lian Thang, who the police had not found. We were kept sitting in the jail all day. The sentries told us that the whole town of Haka had hit the streets, and that they were marching towards the jail with cymbals, drums and whatnot to free us.
Before long, about 10 policemen entered the jail, took their guns and loaded them in front of us. We were a bit scared. A policeman I knew very well (it is better not to mention his name) told me that they had set limits and that the people had already passed the first and the second, and they were about to arrive. If they passed the third limit, the police had been given the right to shoot. By that time we could hear the noise of the people. We heard the sounds of cymbals, drums and loudspeakers. They were very near. Then we saw the policemen going out from the jail with their guns and marching outside. We were all praying. We were anxiously waiting for the time when we would hear the bang-bang of gunfire, followed by crying and wailing. Suddenly, the sound of cymbals, drums and loudspeakers was heard very loud. It was followed by the shouting of people. Suddenly, they all fell silent again. Then we heard their sounds and noises from the distance again. It was just above the drill ground. Those who have ever been to Haka would know. It seemed as if it was just below the council office.
At 4 pm, the then township council Chairman, the late Pu Cozah, Uk Lian Thang and Solomon and Maung Maung (Cung Bik who is now in Indianapolis) entered the jail. Other elders followed them in. We instantly saw Saw Ke (ULT) tying a red ribbon on his head. “My friends, you are out. It’s over,” he said. Then the police opened the door. Just before we went out, Pu Cozah told us that he had taken the initiative to free us, not because the higher authorities had ordered him to. Should any blame come, he said he would take the responsibility. I noticed that tears were forming in his eyes as he said this. (Note: I want to praise him for taking all the blame. He was right in saying so because all orders for imprisonment came from above). When we came out of the jail one by one, all the people of Haka were there, crowding the drill ground and the council office. It was amazing. I came to realize that we had been freed because of the people’s power. Each of us was asked to make a speech. I made a speech thanking the people of Haka wholeheartedly, with tears flowing down my cheeks. Every one of us made a speech. The day ended without any bloodshed. From the head of Haka town, we walked along the main road. People came out from their homes and greeted us and shook hands with us. In the evening of that day, my mother celebrated my release with chicken meat, if I remember correctly. We had many visitors late into the night. Since I was tired physically and mentally as well, I went to bed early, before all the visitors left.
Some other people who worked hard for the cause in their own way, were the people of Khuathar Ward. They felled large trees and laid them across the Falam Road, in order to prevent the authorities from taking away the students from Haka. They did this to prevent vehicles from going out. Similarly, the road leading to Gangaw was also blocked in the same way. Even if the students were to be taken away, the authorities wouldn’t have been able to do so. They could only have lead us students on foot, carrying firearms. The people of Khuathar also deserve our praise.
The people of Haka held an elaborate dinner for us in celebration of our release from jail at the YMCA hall. They slaughtered a cow, a pig and what have you. Pu Hrang Nawl preached at the ceremony. (Note: Pu Hrang Nawl was an elected MP from Chin National Organization Party during U Nu Government and was the leader of Chin revolution in late 60s) What he said, as I remember, was for us not to mix politics and religion, as petrol and water could never be mixed. If you mix petrol and water in your gas tank, the car won’t move. Petrol is petrol and water is water, he said. He warned us clearly not to mix politics and religion in any way. I don’t fully remember in what context he told us this.
Regarding what happened in the whole country of Burma, after the events of 8.8.88 and the days following, Sein Lwin resigned on August 12th. The Burma Socialist Programme Party held another emergency convention, and elected Dr. Maung Maung to be the new Chairman and President. He told the people to be peaceful and remain patient and promised that change would come. But anarchy and lawlessness reigned in the country. In Rangoon, rumor had it that the government had released all the prisoners from Insein Jail and Monyoa Jail. The newly freed prisoners had no place to live and nowhere to go, and therefore were on a looting rampage. They were encouraged to be violent and destructive, it was said. There were killings and beheadings. What was most frightening was that the former prisoners were said to have been engaged in destroying and digging up the tombs in the Kyantaw cemetery, at the back of the Burma Broadcasting Service (BBS) in Rangoon. This was a graveyard where a number of Chin leaders, including Capt. Thai Cawn (Aung San Thuriyah award) were buried. In Sagaing, heavy fighting and killing took place. As I have said before, the source of news we all trusted was the BBC. The absence of the BBC was unthinkable! The BBC was our eyes and ears, morning and night. U Maung Maung, one of the BBC announcers, was especially popular as I have said before. During this time, the US government sent Mr. Stephen Solarz, a US Congressman from New York, to Burma. We knew that Stephen Solarz was the one sent by the Reagan Administration in 1984 to persuade President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines to leave his country. It was said that Solarz had also attempted to persuade Ne Win and his family to leave the country and settle in the US. This was big news. Solarz was then Chair of the Sub-Committee on International Affairs in the US House of Representatives. [He later co-founded the International Crisis Group, the thinktank that sought to convert formerly socialist or isolated command economies into the “Free Market”].
The other big news, as you all know, was: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (DASSK). She was only 44 years old. She came home to look after her ailing mother. Her arrival coincided with the popular uprising. Her first speech in public was 26 August, 1988 in front of Shwedagon Pagoda, with an audience estimated to be 500,000 strong. Her main message was for the people to behave well, and to be disciplined. Everyone thought that she would be the savior of the country. She was not only the daughter of Aung San, but a beautiful woman and a cheerful one as well! She was the first family member of Aung San’s we saw. She dressed herself like a Burmese. No one could help but admire her. On the other hand, the government was abhorred. They were the hated and she was the beloved.
The second most popular person was U Aung Kyi. He was a good speaker. Aung Kyi was Ne Win’s right hand man but was later sacked. He was a brigadier in the Army, who was relied on by Ne Win. He was knowledgeable and often praised by the Western media. He had founded a bakery called Aung Kyi Cake. Aung Kyi Cake was a successful business and the cakes were very popular with customers. He sent an open letter to Ne Win, which was distributed all over the country. He directly challenged Ne Win, for which he became very famous. He addressed a mass rally in Myenigon, San Chaung in Rangoon. It was a fine speech, well-liked by the people. But he concluded his speech by warning the people not to blame the military, even in one’s heart, since it was born of the people. His defense of the military was not received well by the people. At a time when the military had indiscriminately shot, killed and arrested people, and when the people were still reeling from the military’s brutality, his speech asking not to blame them, struck a false note.
Another popular personality at the time was U Tin Oo, the present patron of the NLD. He was friendly to DASSK from the beginning. Then U Nu, the former prime minister, also reappeared. He said that Ne Win wrested power from him in the coup in 1962 and that parliament had never been dissolved. He announced that he would invite all the members of parliament together, convene a parliamentary session, and hold an election. As Pu Hrang Nawl and Pu Ro Thang, ex-members of parliament from Chin, were still alive at the time, the Haka Seino group asked them about it. They said that parliament had been suspended for 26 years, but if invited they would attend the reconvening.
The people wanted DASSK, U Nu and Aung Kyi to form an interim government together. It was said that some people were acting as mediators for this to happen. There were many different versions of the story. Some people said that Daw Suu was against the idea. Others said that U Nu wanted only to recall his former government and parliamentary members. We did not know which version was correct.
During this time, the students ruled the country for over 30 days. Also in the Chinland, the students ruled their own towns and villages. It was ridiculous to learn that the Party and Council together in Haka, Thantlang and Falam had given land to their friends and relatives during this time. The Haka Student Union and the Chin Students Union were formed anew. The Chin Student Union was formed in Falam. I also went there. I do not remember the date, but it was in August or September. There was a shortage of rice at that time. The students brought rice from Kalaymyo. Land allotments were suspended. The courts were closed. All office attendance were banned. All disputes among people or arguments between two people were brought to the Student Union Office. Theft, the sale of illicit liquor and debt cases were settled at the Student Union Office. Have you ever heard that students ruled a country in any other part of the world? This happened only in Burma. Later, all these students became soldiers. The hands that should have been holding pens and pencils have now become the hands that pull the trigger.
I still wonder what the underground armed forces were doing all that time. We still didn’t have the CNF then. But why were the KNU, KIO, NMSP and the other Shan armed groups, only watching from tree tops, mountain peaks and ridges, instead of taking advantage of the anarchy to sweep the country and take power in Burma? I still don’t know why. That golden opportunity will not come a second time. Also at present I am afraid the negotiations may fail if they are hesitant. Some used to be hesitant, you know!
Rumor had it that the soldiers who opened fire on the people in Rangoon were those from the Chin Battalion. All the Chin people in Rangoon were scared. Amid the beheadings and the anger of the people who heard that they were being killed by Chins, our elder brothers who live in Rangoon at the time such as Lian Hmung Sakhong, and other Chin leaders in Rangoon, went to U Aung Kyi, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin Oo. The Chin elders requested them to sign a letter that there was no longer any Chin Battalion, that it existed in name only, and that the soldiers were not Chins. The letter was distributed, and this cooled down the anger of the people.
Another big piece of news was that Daw Sanda Win, daughter of Ne Win, had invited 40 military and government leaders together and challenged them to take power. News reports said that these people carefully planned for the Army to take power again. We were wondering when this would happen. It was not late in coming. As we all know, the BBS announced on September 18, 1988 that the military had taken over. They called themselves the “State Law and Order Restoration Council” (SLORC) with Chief of Staff General Saw Maung as Chairman, VCS Lt. Gen Than Shwe as Vice-chairman, Brigadier Khin Nyunt as First Secretary and Brigadier Tin Oo as Second Secretary. A curfew order was issued across the whole country, to be in force from six in the evening to six in the morning.
When we heard the news of the military coup on September 18, 1988, we ran helter-skelter. Without spending the night in our own homes, we went roaming about for one week. The signboards of the Chin Student Union, Haka Student Union, Haka Seino Bu and all the demonstration centres across the whole country were demolished, one by one. All government offices were ordered to reopen and all government employees were instructed to attend.
From BN Infantry 89 in Kalamyo, a battalion led by Lt. Col Thein Sein (our present president) arrived in Haka on September 24 or 26 and helped form the Chin State Law and Order Restoration Council. This is the end of the story I am writing.
Victor Biak Lian, a former Chin revolutionary and Director of Operations, Euro-Burma Office
Originally written on 01 August, 2014
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