Escaping to Freedom with Aung Myo Tint

14 Jul

Escaping to Freedom with Aung Myo Tint

by Daniel Opacki

Leading up to the 2007 Saffron Uprising some 1988 Generation student leaders were featured on “wanted dead or alive posters” in many police stations. One such Democracy activist was Aung Myo Tint. Aung was a high echelon antagonist closely aligned with Aung San Suu Kyi leading up to the 1988 Uprising. Following the uprisings defeat more than thirty thousand young Burmese students and dissidents fled to the jungles in Northern and Eastern Burma to join ethnic factions fighting the government. Many joined with the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF). Aung joined an ABSDF faction in Karen State and became a leader in the main unit called Phoenix 13. He fought in four battles against the Dictatorship’s Tatmadaw Army. The first three battles were offensives that gained nothing except casualties on both sides. The final battle on March 26, 1989 was a disaster following a surprise attack by the Tatmadaw.  Most student soldiers regrouped following the attack but were no match for the well trained and well equipped Tatmadaw and they were defeated during a counteroffensive. The surviving students fled in all directions. Many perished, some were captured by ABSDF and executed for desertion. Over the next several months the unit disbanded and most were eventually hunted down by the government forces of police and military intelligence and arrested. Aung returned to Rangoon and set off several late night bombs at bus stations. The bombs were designed to intimidate local police without causing casualties. One bomber in his groups was captured and subsequently Aung was caught on March 15, 1989 and sentenced to life in prison.

 

With Aung and my Dad, Edward, In Albany, New York

 

Just over fifteen years passed when Aung was freed and returned home to Rangoon. He was followed constantly so he was never really free. However, he did learn to be evasive and dutifully re-entered the fight for Democracy without any intention of firing another weapon for the rest of his life. He re-joined the non-violent resistance. To interested Burmaphiles, Aung is one of the least known 1988 Generation student leaders though he’s well known and highly regarded by his peers.

 

Aung’s resistance was relentless and prior to the 2007 Saffron Uprising he was wanted by Special Branch police and Military Intelligence. They chased him all over Rangoon in 2007 prior to the Saffron Uprising. The resistance movement was making plans for a new mass uprising across all of Burma similar to the 1988 Uprising.  Due to Aung’s violent armed resistance years earlier he was high on the governments list of people to detain when they deemed the time was right. The few months prior to the Saffron Uprising was electrifying. Most people involved with the movement knew, and Special Branch and Military Intelligence knew, a mass uprising was about to occur at any time. Special Branch and Military Intelligence decided it was time to round up the usual suspects, including Aung Myo Tint. If only they could find him.

For more than two months after word got out Aung was targeted for detainment, Aung never stayed one night or two nights in the same location. Sometimes he’d stay with a friend. Sometimes he would sleep in a guesthouse. Sometimes he’d sleep in a monastery. Sometime he’d sleep outside in an ally or on a trishaw posing as a trishaw driver. Police questioned everyone Aung knew and anyone they believed knew Aung. They threatened that their entire families would be imprisoned if they were found to have sheltered Aung. That was not an idle threat and it was a cruel but effective tactic used to isolate dissidents from all of their family and friends.

One day his youngest sister was summoned to appear at the Sanchaung Police Department for questioning into Aung’s whereabouts. She was treated with dignity and kindness by her inquisitors in spite of the demand she meet with police who sought to kill her brother. On the wall directly in front of her chair was Aung’s photo on a poster with a list of his crimes and with big letters the poster read, “Wanted, Dead or Alive.” As she was questioned she was offered a cup of tea. But, she explained she had seen Aung only twice shortly after Aung’s release from prison. She would not have said anything to the police even if she knew where her Ko Ko Gyi was even though she knew she could go to prison if she lied to the police.

As Aung became more dangerous to anyone harboring him he quickly ran out of places to hide. Aung was encouraged by his compatriots and by one of his closet friends, Ko Htay Kywe, to flee Burma and head to the refugee camps in Thailand. After several days hiding inside the Australian embassy, while trying to decide between fleeing Burma or stay in Rangoon to face execution, Aung found new shelter inside of the American Center School compound. He was brought in by a close friend who worked there but it’s a small place with little privacy and anyone sleeping there would not go unnoticed for long. Still, the American Center gave him time to reconnect with a lifelong friend, Pyu Pyu. She too was hunted for attending a meeting. Although she was new to the resistance it was because of her elder brother’s lifelong involvement that she was automatically considered to be a serous threat.

Aung and Pyu Pyu decided to abscond to Thailand and made plans with fellow activists to help them leave Rangoon. Their journey was perilous. At any moment they could have been caught. Dozens of roadblocks were set up on all roads inside and outside of Rangoon. At times they moved on foot through neighborhoods and across open fields until they reached a rendezvous point and joined a friend who then drove them by truck to Mandalay. Near Mandalay they posed as a married couple expecting a child as they made their way past several roadblocks. At times they exited the truck and walked around the roadblocks overland to meet the truck miles away. Exhausted, once inside Mandalay it was safer to walk past a checkpoint posing as locals. In Mandalay they spent a night at a safe house. They planed to reach the Mandalay airport the next day to board a flight to Tachilek. Once in Tachilek they would attempt to cross the border over the bridge leading to Mai Sai, Thailand.

 

 

The next morning in the Mandalay airport terminal, which was actually larger than the Rangoon terminal but hollow and almost unused except for servicing a few weekly domestic flights, they were subjected to several pre-boarding searches. Aung and Pyu Pyu had identification cards with alias names. Fake ID card’s were easy to get or to make. Still, their faces were scrutinized against a long list of the Dictatorship’s known enemies. Nervously anticipating capture at any moment. their ruse paid off. Usually, only the wealthy or elite government workers, high-ranking police or military personnel could afford to fly. The idea of political enemies of the state using an airport, where scores of uniformed and undercover military and police personnel would be, was possibly too much for any ID checking policeman to imagine. Aung watched as the policeman flipped page upon page of “Wanted” faces. Aung saw his face go by unnoticed by the policeman. Aung and Pyu Pyu boarded the small aircraft and saw their flight was full of military officers. Aung sat next to one on the flight and conversed with him the entire way while Pyu Pyu, pretending to be pregnant by hiding some cloth under her clothes, feigned sleepiness.

Upon landing in Tachilek, after exiting the aircraft, a policeman once again flipped through the photos of wanted posters when checking ID’s of arriving passengers. Aung again watched as his name and photo was passed over by an unobservant policeman. It was sheer luck and steady nerves that enabled Aung and Pyu Pyu to escape the airport. Unable to make a decision when to cross the bridge they spent one week in a guesthouse in Tachilek. On the third night they felt their luck was running out. They considered crossing into Thailand late at night by wading and swimming through the water. An enabler they knew told them crossing in the river anywhere near Tachilek was extremely dangerous. They then considered leaving Tachilek to cross at an obscure spot but they learned the risk of capture increased greatly. They risked being noticed leaving Tachilek by road and any local resident or policeman up or down river would easily see they were outsiders. As such, they would have no sensible explanation for being anywhere near the region outside of Tachilek dressed as they were and without a logical explanation for traversing rough terrain.

After one week they suspected eyes were watching them since not many people, especially a pregnant woman from Rangoon, spent such a long time hunkered down in a border town guesthouse in the Golden Triangle for no innocent reason. Considering their options, they decided their best chance was to cross the border bridge the same as anyone else seeking to enter Thailand. They had only the one option. They could not go back.

At the crossing Aung watched yet again as another policemen flipped through pages of photographs of the Dictatorships “Wanted” domestic enemies. Only the policeman was a trained Customs Official, not a common airport ID checker. At one turn of a page Aung believed his luck had run out. The Policemen paused at Aung’s photo, and then he looked at Aung, and then he looked at Aung’s identification card. To Aung each action took an eternity. He was consciously trying to stay calm, not to sweat, not to fidget, not to speak. Aung briefly imagined grabbing Pyu Pyu and running for the bridge, and then jumping from the bridge into the River to attempt to escape into Thailand where they would at least be alive.

Somehow, the policeman accepted Aung’s ID card and resumed flipping through his photographs of criminals wanted for arrest. It’s quite possible the policeman was a sympathizer of the Democracy movement and Aung San Suu Kyi and decided to allow them to escape. Or, maybe the policeman ignored his instincts and reasoned the resemblance was only coincidence. Once cleared, Aung and Phyu Phyu began the walk across the bridge thinking at every step the policeman would call them back. Aung was so anxious during the crossing at one point he told Phyu Phyu they should run across. Phyu Phyu convinced him to be patient and they walked to Thailand without incident.

 

Aung and Phyu Phyu in Albany, New York

 

Once Aung and Pyu Pyu made it across the border to Mae Sai another enabler from Rangoon, then living in Thailand, discretely met them. An arrangement was made with a Thai Army Colonel whom Aung knew from years earlier during his time with ABSDF. When Aung knew him, the Colonel was a junior officer who assisted Aung and ABSDF with supplies for the student army. Having risen in rank over the years, the Colonel called Aung an old friend and he drove Aung and Pyu Pyu to Chiang Mai under his personal protection. After staying two weeks in a Chiang Mai safe house Aung and Pyu Pyu, who were by then officially processed as refugees by the Colonel, were sent to Mae Sot where they spent six months in the Mae La Refugee camp. They received political asylum by the United States and when presented with three choices of places to resettle, they chose Albany, New York. Both have become US citizens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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