A story of survival in Myanmar: Some 88 Generation Leaders Are Lost in Motion

A story of survival in Myanmar: Some 88 Generation Leaders Are Lost in Motion

Update: Aung’s Mom is doing well, walking, enjoying her life as much as she can. The daughters are working hard and not thinking about politics anymore. Aung is still in political exile, struggling to survive. The unnamed once famous 1988 Generation in this story leaders will remain unnamed. 25/09/14 

During the period between the 1988 Uprising in Burma and the
2007 Saffron uprising, thousands of Burmese children, men and women were
imprisoned. Among them was the quite famous core group of political prisoners
known to all as the leaders of the 1988 Uprising. At the time, they were not
really the leaders of the uprising but they were surreptitiously thrust into
the limelight by virtue of having the virtue of being in the right place at the right (or wrong) time – they stood on stage at the height of
the protests and announced to all who they were. They did pay their dues in prison, no one can doubt that is true. 
While imprisoned they became more famous and their hopes and
dreams were uplifted upon release from prison before the 2007 Saffron Uprising.
Before Saffron, they unified to create a quasi-political faction that mirrored
the goals of Aung San Suu Kyi and the national League for Democracy and they
once again took the lead during the Saffron Uprising as a viable and moral force for freedom.

Political and social freedom was their unifying goal and those with
differences set them aside for the sake of opposing the dictatorship that created
hellish lives for millions of people in Burma, in refugee camps in countries around
Burma, and in for Burmese in exile abroad.

Generally, the famous and less famous leaders of the 88
Generation stuck together and supported one another and each other’s families
and friends. While some were from wealthy families, most were not.

The number
of ex-political prisoners in Myanmar today is staggering, and there is even a hierarchy
created as to the definition of what constitutes having been a political prisoner.  While some people believe that anyone held in
prison for a number of weeks, months or years is a political prisoner, for sake
of benefit, some official 1988 Generation organizations fail to recognize
younger people from the 1990’s and later who were imprisoned and released after
several months even if they were brutally treated or even tortured
while incarcerated. These prisoner are called “detainees” by some. Which mean, of course, not full blown political prisoners. 

Recent events in Burma have lifted up the images and
statures and lifestyles of many of the more famous 88 Generation leaders. Many
of them have been given awards in far off lands, received monetary awards, hold
art exhibits and rake in money from sales, participated in exchange programs
and received scholarships or grants, all for the purpose of western countries institutionalizing
them into prescribing to western neo-liberal ideas.

And why not? They are human and Myanmar needs some leadership. I’m just not convinced that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and such far right-wing organizations like NED and NDI are the right ones to lead them. They are really buying the minds of the famous ex-oplitical prisoners who really are nationalists, not capitalists, without very much formal education due to having been in prison.

If Myanmar is to
really change there can be no pesky nationalistic uprisings led by famous
once-rebellious leaders of generations past. Today’s smaller protests occurring in Myanmar are mainly led by freedom seeking nationalists in rural
areas over land seizures, and on occasion in cities where they get more
attention. However, such modern uprisings are small in comparison to the past
nation-changing events of 1988, 1996 and Saffron in 2007.

But today as the 88 Generation leaders move into their
later years in life, many still have political ambitions. Some have family business
ventures to join, some don’t and others just want to be left alone. The more famous 88’s do on
occasion appear publicly for a variety of causes. For some reason many of them do not want to be aligned with the Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy yet their interests are in synch. 
Undoubtedly, the 2015 national elections, which could result
in Aung San Suu Kyi becoming president of Myanmar, the 88 Generation leaders
still involved in politics will probably have an opportunity to make their mark, yet again, on the troubled political history of Myanmar. I will, however,
disregard their words from some of them as hollow and empty as they have recently
proven themselves similar to cheap trinkets as one might see in a market where people no longer shop.
Recently a woman, with a son from the 88 Generation who’s still
in exile due to the current governments unwillingness to issue him a passport
and assurances that he could safely return home, went under the knife
for a life threatening non-cancerous brain tumor. This is an elderly woman
whose husband died long ago.

She was once considered so venerated and
respected by the famous 88 generation leaders, who called her Aunty,
that shortly before they were arrested after the 2007 Saffron Uprising they
gathered together and visited her pay homage and respect to her. She had, at great danger to herself and children, helped the famous 88’s when they were being hunted down in 1988 and 89 and in 2007.

Her own son, who had spent fourteen years in prison, was sought by the government after Saffron. he was marked for death on sight. A fact that was confirmed to me by his sister who was summoned to the local Police station for questioning. She was shown the wanted notice with her brother photo. I’ll call him Aung.

Aung was an 88
Generation leader caught up in the turmoil of Saffron. His action though went much deeper than simply leading marches and making speeches. Luckily, he absconded to
the Thai border posing as a monk as he made his way to the refugee camps in Mae Sot, Thailand.  Once there he was quickly given political asylum
abroad by a western country where he lives today. I’ve been to his home often and he’s quite despondent even now, after so many years. He can’t go home. The government won’t issue him a passport. They’ve only offered him a letter for travel into Myanmar. His host government’s representative department who advises such people as Aung advised him to stay put. There’s no doubt he would be held in Myanmar should he return.  

During the visit to Aung’s mother pay homage and respect they
thanked her for her protection and for risking her life and those of her
daughters for having supported the ex-political prisoners with donations and even jail visits and for hiding them in her home when they were absconding. She also gave them money. She barely had enough for her own family.

While her husband was alive her family was a little prosperous
and her husband was generous to a fault. Though she was not unique in this generous regard as many, many
Burmese people did such brave things to support of those who were arrested for
trying to free Burma, she was quite exceptional in that the famous 1988 Generation leaders visited her just before being arrested.

What made her unique was that her son was one of the least know but most influential 88 Generation leaders. He shunned the limelight due to the unusual nature of his activism and he never sought recognition and doesn’t today.

Nevertheless, he’s still prominent enough today to have been invited to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sien during their famous trips to western countries in 2012. He occasionally even talks with he Lady by telephone.

That was then. Today, Aung’s Mom lives day to day without much income and
with no prospects for much more than simple survival.  

This brave woman was dying in front of the eyes of her
daughters and her grandchildren. They all live together in one bare and simple
flat, scraping by each month with just enough money to buy food and some
occasional treats but not with enough to buy a cheap cooling fan to
comfort them during the hot season.
Myanmar’s healthcare system is pay-as-you go. Or, as in the
case of Aung’s Mom, pay-OR-you-go.

Her operation was to cost over four thousand U.S.
dollars, or roughly, four million Burmese Kyat, which is an untouchable sum for
most people in Myanmar. She was collapsing more often during the previous
months of August and September until finally her doctor said she would suffer
then die soon without the operation. Even then, the doctor did not guarantee one hundred
percent survival with the operation.

As word got around to the family and friends of Aung’s Mom, that
she was dying and in urgent need of life saving surgery, some of the famous
1988 Generation leaders telephoned the family to pledge financial support and to help
raise funds. In her case, every Kyat counted.

With hope, Aung’s Mom, actually Aung’s sisters, made the appointment for surgery since they were
reassured by the promises of help from so many of the 88 Generation leaders.
Other family members also pitched in with small amounts they mustered
together. None of them have too much. but actually,  the hopes of Aung’s Mom and sister’s soared because of the unsolicited incoming phone
calls and pledges from the 88 Generation leaders. Aung himself barely makes it by as a laborer in his host country. he really had no way to help. 

While in the hospital awaiting surgery, the 88 Generation
leaders never showed up or called. When Aung sister’s explained their financial situation to the doctor.  He had to wait to perform the life saving surgery without being paid up front, as is customary. Aung’s Mom spent eight days in a hospital bed with her daughters at her side, bring her water and feeding her. Each day in the hospital added to their bill and their worries grew.

Still, no word or even a phone call was made by a single one of the 1988 Generation leaders who may or may not, in some way, owe their lives to a woman who saved them.

Encouraged by some to act, a dutiful daughter made some very difficult phone calls to the 88 Generation leaders to remind them of their promises to help. Not one of
them answered her calls or returned the messages she left over, at first several days, then weeks.

The operation was postponed because the family didn’t have the upfront money to
pay for the operation, about two thousand five hundred dollars. The family was
losing hope and also beginning to wonder if they should take their mother home to
die since the hospital chargers were adding up day to day.

daughter kept calling the 88 Generation leaders who promised to help. She
left more messages for them but none were answered. Everyone knew
about Auntie’s condition. Aunty, in her own painful way, now partially paralyzed
on one side of her face, smiled to her daughters and she thanked them for
trying to save her. But, she knew the reality they they made a decision to return home the next day and wait for her death to arrive.

Suddenly, a family member who was good friends with a
former teacher from a western country was given the up-front money to cover the cost of
the operation. The teacher knew the family and the brother in exile. It wasn’t
a loan but instead a gift for the sake of loving kindness and nothing
more. The remainder of the money would be borrowed. Some more came from relatives, donations and loans were made. The money added up and the doctor was satisfied to at least get the upfront money and agreed to perform the surgery.

The next evening Aunty went into
the operating room, the former teacher who was at the time in Myanmar on
vacation left the country, and ten hours later Aunty emerged from the
operation. The operation was successful. Aung’s Mom is even walking again

Walking was something she hadn’t done in over one year due to the growth
of her tumor. With her facial paralyses mostly gone her smile grew once again wide and cheerful.

her family gathered together recently on the full Moon of Thadingyut, where
family members gather to pay homage to all of the generations of mothers in the
family, no one smiled brighter than Aung’s Mom and her daughters.

Absent from their thoughts were
the 1988 Generation leaders. Their once promising words now mean nothing to Aung’s Mom and her daughters. They
are long forgotten and out of their lives.

The failure of those particular former 88
Generation leaders is not that they failed Aung’s Mom, their Aunty. It was that their Aunty nor her family ever asked them for their help. Their collective failure is that they went out of their
way to call and offer the assistance. They then failed to deliver. Not one of
them even returned a phone call or has since called to ask about Auntie’s
health or wellbeing.

These are not the acts of leaders. 

The 1988 Generation leaders, many
of whom are not part of this story, have ambitions to create a political force
in Myanmar. But it seems some of the most important people in that so-called
force have a very short memory.

They may go on to win some seats in parliament,
or become even more famous for their poetry, art and speeches, and family businesses, but in truth,
they are as devoid of conviction as any typical politician in any country on
the planet. Their actions speak louder than words. Their words once had impact and meaning but now mean nothing – at least to some of those who know them well.  


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