The indescribable horror of political violence in Burma reached its ugliest peak in 1988. Newspaper frontpage pictures of disgusting rows of decapitated heads being displayed on a crude table on the streets of one of Rangoon’s poorest townships shocked the world. But for an average Burmese the atrocities committed by all the parties involved weren’t that shocking at all. We were well accustomed or rather climatised to the extreme violence most people in highly civilised societies would cringe just by thinking of it.
One well-documented case happened not far from where our house was. It was a chaotic time and people just took over their neighbourhoods, as there was absolutely no law and order. The army was safely hidden in their barracks and the police just simply disappeared.
One early morning a group of young men caught a man allegedly from the Military Intelligence and they just simply decided to kill him on the spot right there. The spot was not far from the local wet market and a large crowd immediately formed around them to enjoy the imminent execution. To some peoples’ surprise, the vigilante group offered the killing task to any volunteer from the crowd.
To everybody’s amazement a rather young housewife accepted the offer, came up to the kneeled and bounded prisoner, took the sword from someone’s offering hand, and started sawing the poor man’s neck, while he was still alive and breathing. Some men standing nearby helped her later and eventually the head was chopped off and hanged from the nearby road sign by its long hair. Later we learnt that he was just a local junkie from another township.
Could that sort of horrible incident happen in Thailand? I seriously doubt that! Maybe in the Khmer Rouge’s Cambodia? I still doubt that!
I basically grew up in a small town called Mawgyun in the delta of Lower Burma. During the late fifties and early sixties my family and most of my relatives were the active members or the sympathisers of Burmese Communist Party. One of my older uncles was the feared boss of the local party branch. But, as the rebels they controlled only the surrounding villages, not the town itself. In our rural region, the majority of the villages were Burmese with a considerable number of Karen villages dotted among. Communists then controlled the Burmese villages and Karen villages were ruled by the KNDO. The town itself was controlled by an army company permanently stationed on the outskirts of our town.
But the real lord of the town was the local politician and the leader of the pro-government militia then called Pyu-saw-hti, a mythical hero from our ancient history. His name was Bo-Koon, half-Burmese half-Karen. He was big and tall and really ugly with a pistol in his belt always. If we children saw him on the street coming in our direction we turned round and ran away from him as fast as we could.
I still remembered him as we children used to be dead scared of him. He had many regular trips with his bands of militiamen to the nearby villages and they always brought back heads of communists or Karen rebels he and his men had killed. He then stuck the heads on the bamboo stalks and put them up right in front of his house, just to frighten the townfolks. Sometimes he brought the captured rebels alive and ransomed them for large amounts of money from the fearful relatives. I still remembered seeing the tortured men bound and lying on the ground at his house.
One day he captured one of my young uncles and brought him back to the town for ransom. He sent for my old aunty and we had to rush there with a bundle of money and some jewellery to get my uncle back. My wounded uncle was hogtied on the ground and Bo-Koon was standing beside, holding the rope around his neck like a leash and waiting for his money, with a grin on his twisted face.
But that day was hated Bo-Koon’s last day on earth. That evening my other uncle sent three men into town and they walked up to his lounge-room where he was having a dinner with his young family. They killed the whole family–yes, including his young wife and two young children and a baby still in a cradle–and took his head back to the villages just to show it around so that people knew he was dead.
Make the story short, fast forward to the middle of 1974 and the gruesome scene of massacre at Thamin Textile Mills. I was on my way home from RIT to the city when our bus was stopped at Thamine Intersection and we were forced to walk along the wide Rangoon-Insein Road. Around the bend from where the bus was
stopped, we ran into the mass of crowd stretching their necks looking out ahead. What I could see from afar was the mass of protesting workers right in front of the Textile Mills. Then I heard the drum beat like “Dang Dang Dang” sounds of G3s from ahead and saw the frightened crowd dispersed and running towards us.
Bravely or stupidly, I didn’t turn and run with the others as the crowd ran past and I found myself standing alone in the middle of the road facing the armed soldiers standing only about 200 yards away blocking the road, their rifle barrels still smoking and the pale-black cloud of cordite now hanging low above them. Right in front of me only about 150 yards away were the bodies of dead and dying workers they mowed down with automatic rifles just a few minutes before. There must be at least 100 lying there some moaning, some still trying to crawl away from the soldiers. The strange scene was the now familiar sight of hundreds and hundreds of abandoned flip-flops scattering all over the wide road and around me. Luckily the soldiers didn’t advance or shoot at me. I immediately realised my stupid mistake, turned around, and ran like hell away from them.
Then came the 1975 Thakhin Kodaw Mhaine Centenary protest. Or it was 1976, I don’t remember the exact date now. Somehow we the brave RIT crowd marched along the U-Wisara Road and ended up right in front of the Thakhin Kodaw Mhaine memorial on the Shwe Dagon Pagoda Road. Once we got there we couldn’t go any
farther as the lines of armed soldiers now blocked the road just before the South-side stairs of the beaming Shwe Dagon pagoda.
As their practice they had three chalked lines drawn about six foot apart from each other on the tarred road right in front of the standing soldiers with G3s aiming at us students and ready to fire. I was stupidly holding a banner right at the front and I didn’t like what I saw. As I had seen it before I definitely knew that these bastards were gonna shoot once I crossed the first chalked line. So I tried to stop, but the people behind us didn’t really know what was going on at the front and the crowd pressure was gradually carrying us towards the soldiers as we at the front were now tightly squeezed shoulder to shoulder.
My feet just a few feet away from first chalked-line, suddenly I got a bright idea. I dropped the banner, turned to my left, and squeezed sideways through the crowd into the narrow laneway between two small buildings on my left. As soon as I hit the lane way, the soldiers fired and the whole crowd ran backwards like hell. Luckily, the shots were warning shots into the air and nobody, I think no one, got killed there that day. That was the last day of my rebellious student days and I’ve never participated in any student protest again. I just didn’t want to die that young! The Burmese army couldn’t afford the specially-made rubber bullets. They have only real bullets and are eager to use them if you give them an opportunity.
As you can see and conclude now that I was well familiar with the extreme violence from a young age. So well familiar, even the regular shocking news from my home town of whole Burmese villages being slaughtered by the Karens or an entire Karen village wiped out by the militia from neighbouring Burmese
villages didn’t bother me much at all. But what I had witnessed in 1988 actually shocked me to bone and made me decide to abandon my own beloved country, Burma, forever.
The date was just before 8-8-88. Rangoon was already in dangerous chaos and there were running battles between hated riot-police, Lone-Htain in Burmese, and the protesters all over Rangoon. By then I was back in Rangoon to start my own business after saving a few thousand dollars working in a factory in Bangkok as a production engineer. But wisely, I bought a return ticket from Thai Airways and also didn’t return my passport as after living four years in relatively peaceful Bangkok I wasn’t so sure of how my venture back home would eventually turn out.
That day my kid brother asked me if I would like to go see what was going on at the Rangoon General Hospital. The news he heard was that many injured policemen were at the hospital or on their way to the hospital. So we went and reached right in front of the hospital. What we saw was not only thousands of protesters but also a rather large crowd of Buddhist monks from a nearby monastery. There must have been at least 100 monks there standing idly near a makeshift roadblock of piled chairs and tables from the high school nearby. I even went up to the group of older monks sitting on the low brick wall by the hospital’s main entrance and gave my respect. As we were talking about what was going on around Rangoon, we saw a police Hino TE21 truck came speeding along Aung San Road, towards the main entrance.
The crowd of monks and other protesters roared and the lone driver saw them and immediately stopped his truck well before the roadblock and tried to do a U-turn. But some how the gear got jammed and engine stalled and the uniformed policeman opened the door and tried desperately to run away from the now chasing crowd. He didn’t even last more than a few minutes in the middle of the roaring crowd of raging protesters. He was dead within a few minutes and they started making a bonfire of all the school-furniture already on the road. They threw his mutilated body into the huge fire. Watching the protesters including
the young Buddhist monks doing that such a violent and cruel act, I didn’t feel that badly at first. But what they did later shocked me to the bone.
One very young man climbed up to the back of the truck now stranded awkwardly on the road and discovered there were five more wounded policemen, still alive and breathing. More of the protesters joined him and they threw them down all onto the road first, then into the fire burning now with huge flames roaring high. The overpowering smell of burning human flesh was almost unbearable and the popping noises of boiling human fat flowing in large quantity almost overwhelmed the cheers and the clapping sounds of the excited crowd. One slightly wounded policeman tried to crawl out of the fire, but the people
pushed him back into the fire with long bamboo sticks and the flame finally consumed him except his left arm which was now lying just outside of the edge of fire.
To my absolute horror, the respectable looking old monk talking nicely to me just before stood up, slowly walked towards the fire, pushed the intact arm back into the fire with his bamboo walking stick. He then came back to where he was sitting before as if he didn’t do anything wrong. I think I lost my faith that day. I think I did.
The next day I went to Thai Airways office near Sule Pagoda and booked the next available flight to Bangkok. I flew out of Rangoon just before they stopped all the flights in and out of dilapidated Rangoon Airport. The day after I arrived in Bangkok, I went to Australian Embassy and inquired for a work-visa. Luckily, the Australian Immigration Councilor felt pity for me after a long chat and she kindly encouraged me to apply for a permanent resident visa instead. It took only three weeks to get my PR visa and as soon as I had been living in Sydney for a required two years residency I successfully sat for my citizenship interview and became an Australian citizen.