[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index ][Thread Index ]

Interview with Htun Gyaw by Barbar

Subject: Interview with Htun Gyaw  by Barbara Berger

Interview with Htun Gyaw  by Barbara Berger

Htun Gyaw works in Olin Library  at Cornell University as a Senior
Stacks Assistant.  He came to Ithaca in March of 1991 and his family
joined him three years later.  This interview is part of his story.

BB:	Can you tell can some of your experiences in Burma and why you had
to leave to come to the United States.

HG:	My  experiences began more that twenty years ago when I began
participating in student demonstrations in December of 1974.  U Thant
the former United Nation Secretary General from 1961-1971 was well
respected by the Burmese people and when he died his body was sent back
to Burma.  The socialist government  led by General Ne Win ignored this
event and  we wanted to have  a national funeral.  The government never
respected the people's will so we demonstrated on December 5, 1974, and
after that many students were captured by the military government.  This
is the first experience that I had in participating  in the student
movement. I was 21 years old.  Myself and my friend Tin Maung Oo  tried
to continue our struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma where
there are no human or civil  rights organizations.  The last time there
was a student movement the government on  July 8, 1962 abolished all
students organizations.  There are  no political parties or freedom of
the press and they also control two  newspapers.  The students feel that
we have no rights and  no freedoms.  We  demonstrated against the
military regime.  The  funeral demonstration was the first big one since
the 1962 military coup. This was a very big demonstration and the
government was shaking and very worried.  The  3000 students who  were
involved were captured by the military regime. On  June 6, 1975 we
organized  another demonstration.  My friend was marked as a fugitive
and I was captured and sent to prison for life.   I was sentenced by the
military tribunal, and later in March of 1976 my friend was captured and
he was hanged.  He was the first student to be hanged officially by the
military regime.  In 1980 I was released from prison due to the  amnesty
law.  My student activism ended in the prison.  I was in Insein prison
for five years.  The prison conditions were very bad and many people
were sick because of  illnesses.  There was insufficient food,  only one
soup, watery bean soup in the morning and in the evening  a vegetable
soup mixed up with some mud and some worms. It is so dirty but we have
to drink and eat this.  There is little medicine for the prisoners, they
are not treated like human beings, and many die in prison.  If you are
sick or have an infection they send you to the prison hospital.  In this
hospital many patients were lined up together and they were told to bend
their upper body and show their butt,  and the medical staff had a
syringe and they punch an  injection into all of these folks.  One
needle is used without washing or boiling the needle.  Most of the
prisoners have some kind of disease,  skin, HIV,  and it is spread to
other prisoners.  Many prisoners die it is very dangerous to go to the
hospital.  This is prison life.  After I am released,  I am married, my
mother wanted me to marry.   I have two  kids but still I am very active
in politics.   I still connect with the students.  In 1988 the
government devalued money and  many poor people are starving since  the
money in their hands has no value.  The government did this twice 
within a year and  the peasants are all angry.  The students
demonstrated August  8, 1988, and since it was  8/8/88 it is known as
the four eights.  The demonstration spread nationwide. After four days
of demonstrations the government shot many people.  Over one hundred
people died and after that they stop the  killing, people came out on
the roads to demonstrate.  This involved many villages, towns and
cities. I was  one of the leaders in the group called the freedom
fighters of Burma.  I organized the students and the people around the
territory for democracy and human rights.  The government stepped down
after the demonstrations and on Sept. 18, 1988 the army staged a coup. 
They killed 3000 demonstrators all over Burma who were mostly
students.   After this the young activists felt that non violence does
not work. They believe that  they need arms and most of the militant
students fled to the Thailand/Burma or Chinese/Burma border. On 
November  5, 1988 on the Thailand/Burma border a conference was held.  
I was elected as chairman of the Burmese All-Student Democratic Front. 
During  my time as chairman there were over 10,000 students members. 
Our aims and objectives were to fight against the military regime in
armed struggle,  but we hoped  that western countries will help us with
arms and ammunition.  But after two to three  years we are still in the
same condition and  we only have a few arms and ammunition.  We live
with the minority groups like the Karen .  They are the strongest
minority group who fight against the regime for autonomy and they are
strong supporters of the students.  The Kaichin on the northern border
also support the students.  After three years many students die of
malaria, and  many die during battle.  Some  return back to Burma. After
three  years only 5000 students are  left due to hardship, insufficient
food,  and  tropical diseases.   I resign from the position after one 
year due to my health problems. I have malaria more than ten  times and
I cannot work very well. I feel that I  can better help from behind and
I find food and medicine for them in Bangkok and from the NGO
(non-governmental agency) groups.
BB: Tell us about your experiences leaving Southeast Asia.

I was helping the student group and  at the time I was not holding any
post.  The Thais in the region were trying to pressure me into giving
them  information about the student activists and they want to use me as
an informer.  I was told that  if you don't help us we will send you
back to Burma. My life is not safe anymore, I cannot stay,  and I
decided to go to the United States.  I apply to the United States 
political section to help me resettle and  within a month I was
approved.  On March 9, 1991 I arrived in  New York City and  with the
help of my friends  I stayed  there for four  months.   I receive a
grant from the Open Society Institute to assist in my graduate studies
and I came to Cornell to study.  After three years my family came from
Burma and I had to find a job to support them.

BB: Describe your recent trip to Southeast Asia.

Last August 5, one of my Japanese friends who is a reporter offered me
air tickets and accommodation to have the opportunity to record my
travels to the refugee camps on the border.  I had met him when I was in
a camp previously, and he had helped one of my comrades was seriously
ill with malaria.  My comrade had brain damage, his nose and ears were
bleeding and  he helped us to carry him to a border hospital.  Because
of his help (my Japanese friend) my friend is still alive.  We are in
contact and he suggests the plan  to go to the border.  I want my group
to be reunited since it split into two  groups due to a leadership
struggle.  I  decided to accept his offer to return to the border
camps.  We met the students groups, refugees and minorities along the
border.   I interviewed all of these people and find out  how it has
changed in the past five years since I left.  They are mostly self
sufficient since they have been  planting food.  Many are now twenty-six
years old and  not students anymore.  They are now revolutionaries with
families.  All things have changed, but they still respect me.  There
are now sixty thousand Karen refugees on the Thailand/Burma border. 
Life is hard since the  Burmese troops cross  day and night and attack
and burn the camps and even many Thai citizens have suffered.  The Thai
army cannot prevent these attacks.  When I arrive a Karen Christian
family was burned out and killed by the Burmese troops.  It is very sad
to see all these people.  The  Burmese troops tried to move all the
refugees  to the plains. They want to cut off any links between the
students groups and the native villagers.

BB: Tell us about the documentary you are currently working on.

When I was at the camps my Japanese friend reported on all of my borders
activities such as  who I am interviewing, and  what I am doing. We are
making a documentary about Burma and what has happened to the Burmese
people.  We want to explain  why the refugees fled from their land and
what forced them to do this.   I interviewed the refugees  and I am
translating this into English.  We want the world to know what is
happening in Burma and  what is the meaning of border conflicts. One of
the refugees told us about how  many people have to carry arms by
force.  They are  driven by the military to do this without food or
payment.  When they are exhausted they are shot and killed.  One person
told us his story about how  the military troops came to his village and
forced him to carry arms and ammunition.  They said it would be for only
five days but it was fourteen days.  He had to carry about 65 - 70
pounds on my back and at the time I was ill and they give him  a handful
of rice per day.  After 14 days he collapsed and they said we do not let
you go like that.  The  corporal punched him with an arm butt of the
gun.  One of eyes was broken and he had bruises all over his body.  He
was thrown from a cliff and he is still alive and his friends fled from
the compound.They carried his body for nine days but the doctor said he
needed two blood transfusions.  These were the type of terrible things
we witnessed at the camps. 

BB: What are you personal plans to support the Burmese struggle for

I want to get a master degree at Cornell University and after that find
a job in Bangkok in an NGO group.  I want to help refugees and educate
my people.  I want them to learn about politics and what we have to do
for our  country.  When we have a democracy I want to set up my own
newspaper in Burma.

BB: On a lighter note can you give us some observations as to what it is
like to live in Ithaca, NY 
        compared to Rangoon.

It is totally different.  We live in the opposite parts of the world.  
In Burma when it is 12pm, it is 12am in  Ithaca.  The  weather is very
different.  In Burma trees shed their leaves in summer here in winter. 
Burma is a tropical climate with approximately 300 inches of rainfall a
year.  Burma is  not very developed and in Rangoon there  not much
pollution unlike other cities around the world.  But in Ithaca the air
is the best,  low pollution, mountains, waterfalls, a very romantic
place.   Ithaca is gorgeous,  I agree with this slogan.  Rangoon is
beautiful from a high place in the mountains looking down Rangoon is
like a small town.  There are many  trees still left but Rangoon is a
city with  lots of people around at night in the market.   Ithaca is
like a dead town at night.  In Rangoon when we buy groceries our
tradition is to buy food every morning.  Fresh food and  vegetables are
very cheap. In the U.S. vegetables and meat are the same price, but in
Burma you can buy with one dollar a lot of vegetables but meat is very
expensive.  In Burma, we can buy a whole chicken you can see the beak,
the head of the goat, and  the pig,  but here it is all in  packages you
don't get to see the whole creature 

BB: I think that is because Americans don't want to associate what they
are eating with the living animal.

In Burma we are used to it,  and in Burma for example chicken liver is
very expensive if you want to eat a liver you have to buy the whole
chicken and in the Burmese family  everybody wants to eat it and
everyone fights over it.Here you can buy a package of chicken livers. It
is very cheap but we don't want to eat it anymore.

BB: Do you want to add anything else. 

Burmese news is very limited in the United States. There is not much
U.S. interest.  I want people to know how the government is brutal.  To
compare it with the Chinese Tiananmen Square massacre, that happened in
1989 but in Burma in 1988, three thousand people mostly students were
killed on the spot.   Very few people know about it, but everyone knows
about Tiananmen Square because of the U.S. interests there.  Amnesty
International said that the Burmese regime is one of the most brutal in
the world.  In Burma our leader  Aung Sang Sui Kyi won the Nobel Peace
Prize.  Her party won landslide victories in 1990,  but the government
ignores it.  They break their promise to hand over  power so we still
struggle.  Now she is released but she was under  house arrest and she
can only speak from the gate of her house to the people.  Political
parties are formed but not allowed to organize the people.  Gatherings
of more than five people are illegal.  Most elected representatives were
captured and some died in prison.  Some fled to the borders and some
were forced to resign from her party the National League for Democracy.  
I want people to know that how terrible life is in Burma.

Barbara Berger
Preservation Reformatting Librarian
Cornell University Library
B32 Olin Library
Ithaca, NY 14853

607-255-5291 (voice)
607-254-7493 (fax)