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The Ithaca Times
September 17, 1998
Headline: Freedom Fighters
Byline: Students elicit support for government reforms in Burma
By Amy Forester
For Ithaca's Burmese student community, the beginning of the academic
year a host of challenges: the struggle to master English as a second
language, balancing school work with political activism, and following
current events in a distant homeland.
Fall 1998 is a special time for this community; not only because it
presents the opportunity for another year of schooling, but because it
marks a particularly poignant moment in Burmese history--the ten-year
anniversary of the military coup which shook the country and took the
lives of some 12,000 people, many of them high school and college
One Ithaca resident, Shwe Htee, remembers August and September
all too vividly. A high school student in Rangoon at the time, Shwe
became active in the Burmese student democracy movement after graduating
high school, joining with other students demanding reform of Burma's
educational system as well as the abolition of military rule.
Traveling to outlying areas as an organizer for the Rangoon Student
Union, and as General Secretary of the Organization for Student Union of
Burma (OSOB), Shwe Htee quickly came to the attention of the military
regime, which imprisoned him for six weeks. He and a variety of other
activists were tortured-and in some cases, killed- as the regime pressed
for information to implicate leaders and supporters of the democracy
Shwe Htee never offered such information to the authorities.
Nevertheless, he was released from prison, and immediately continued
organizing students. On August 2, 1988, he and other students began to
march in the streets of Rangoon. By August 8th, the demonstrations had
grown to include more than 6,000 people. At 11:45 p.m on that date,
battalions from the State Law and Restoration Council (SLORC, which
recently changed its name to the State Peace and Development Council, or
SPDC) opened fire on the demonstrators, eventually killing some 12,000
citizens in Rangoon and outlying areas. "We are very lucky to have
escaped," says Shwe Htee of himself and the other surviving students.
Partially as a result of these mass killings, SLORC lost power
for several weeks, a period now known as "Democracy Summer." On
September 18, 1988, however, SLORC staged a coup d'etat which
effectively ended Democracy Summer, and forced a mass exodus of student
leaders, including Shwe Htee, to the Thai-Burmese border. Here Shwe
continued to organize fellow students and refugees, ceasing only when
Thai officials threatened to deport the students and return them to
Rangoon, thus delivering them directly into the hands of Burma (now
Myanmar)'s military regime.
This threat prompted Shwe Htee to apply for, and received,
asylum in the United States. Following a year in New York City, during
which he coordinated a divestment campaign against Burma's government,
Shwe Htee eventually settled in Ithaca, drawn in part by the unique
educational opportunities offered by this community. Here Shwe Htee has
struggled, along with a small community of fellow Burmese, to master
English and continue his interrupted education.
Burmese activits such as Shwe Htee have been continually
the lack of information regarding both the events of 1988 as well as the
current conditions in Burma. Many people are unaware that the National
League for Democracy, the opposition party headed by Nobel Laureate Daw
Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory in the parliamentary elections
of 1990, taking an astonishing 82% of the seats.
SPDC refused to hand over power, and instead arrested and detained many
of the politicians active in the NLD. Most recently, Aung San Suu Kyi
has announced that she intends to convene a "People's Parliament" this
month, directly challenging the military regime to recognize the results
of the 1990 elections. The military regime has declared her actions
"illegal," as tensions regarding Burma's Parliament, as well as the
future course of the country, continue to rise.
In response, Shwe Htee, along with local Burmese refugees and
from Cornell University, Ithaca College, Tompkins-Cortland Community
College and SUNY Cortland, will hold a "Democracy in Burma Day,"
gathering on the Ithaca Commons, on September 18, from 5-7 p.m. The
event is intended to demonstrate support for Aung San Suu Kyi's call to
convene parliament and demand recognition of the 1990 election results.
The opportunity for remembrance is particularly important to Shwe Htee.
When conducting the interview for this piece, he tells me of a young
woman critically wounded by SLORC gunfire during the demonstration.
As he carried her gravely injured body through the chaos of Rangoon's
streets, she spoke both of her regret that she had not told her family
of her whereabouts, as well as her intense desire that he and others
continue the struggle: "Brother, you have to run. But before you run,
I want a promise from you, and from other people too. Fight for
democracy and human rights in Burma. Finish it."
For more information on the demonstration, or for information on how to
support the struggle for democracy in Burma, contact the Nonviolence
Empowerment Organization, Inc. and Democratic Burmese Students'
Organization at 256-1123.