‘In 1988 I witnessed changes in the whole world, many things changed,” said Tin Maung Htoo a Burmese refugee who was in Whitehorse this week touring a new documentary about Burma.
A young student, full of hope and idealism, Htoo joined thousands of other students in the streets of Rangoon that year to demand democracy for his country.
His rallying cries on August 8, 1988, however, were silenced by automatic rifle shots. The Burmese military, given orders to quell the uprising, opened fire on the protesters. Conservative estimates peg the number of deaths at 3,000, but there may have been upwards of 10,000.
Known as the uprising of 8888 it is remembered as one of the bloodier military crackdowns of the 20th century.
Twenty one years later, Htoo still carries hope of bringing democracy to Burma, a country that has been under military rule since 1962.
Now living in Canada, he is the executive director of the Canadian Friends of Burma, a group that encourages citizens and politicians to take up Burma’s pro-democracy struggle.
He’s jovial and lighthearted, even when he is speaking about the ongoing cause of his people.
He carries no trace of the uprising – or the three years he spent in a Thai jail in the early ‘90s for his human rights work – in his demeanour.
Only when he brings up the recent conviction of Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and leader of the National League for Democracy in Burma, does a shadow cross his face.
“This is a politically manipulated sentence,” he said.
“The main reason for the house arrest is that the military is (threatened by her). If she’s outside, she’s free and it’s difficult for the military to manufacture the (upcoming) election.”
On Tuesday, Suu Kyi was found
guilty of breaching the terms of her house arrest and was sentenced to 18 more months under house arrest. She has already spent 14 of the last 20 years in detention and was supposed to be released this year.
By keeping Suu Kyi out of the political arena, the military junta can guarantee she won’t win the elections in 2010, he said.
“If she were to campaign in 2010, she would win most definitely.”
Although frustrating, the conviction comes as no surprise to Htoo, who views the military as a continual roadblock to Burma achieving democracy.
But since the uprising of 1988,
people’s desire for change in Burma has only been getting stronger and the military’s grip on the populace has slowly been weakening.
In 2007, during a demonstration to protest the increased food and fuel prices by the ruling junta, the military forcibly injured three monks in the city of Pakokku. This led to the striking images that broadcast around the world in September of 2007: thousands of monks, in saffron-coloured robes, snaking through the streets of Burma, quietly shaming the military.
“The military antagonized the monks who are respected in society, so they (the military) now have less support,” said Htoo.
It was around that same time that citizens began risking their lives to covertly video-tape the actions of the military. Once the images were captured on camera, the citizen journalists would smuggle the pictures into Thailand so they could be broadcast on the internet.
These images eventually became part of the documentary, Burma VJ, that Htoo toured through Whitehorse this week.
“The video journalists play a very important role,” he said.
“Without their efforts, people wouldn’t have been able to see images from the 2007 revolution.”
The 80-minute documentary is narrated by Joshua, a 27-year-old video journalist who dodges the military while filming scenes from the revolution.
“I decided to become a video reporter to show that Burma is still here,” he said at the beginning of the film.
Similarly, Htoo’s video tour of Canada is to raise awareness of a country that he hopes Canadians don’t forget about.
“We need public support to shake the Canadian government into doing something,” said Htoo.
Canadian Friends of Burma works with politicians, like MP Larry Bagnell, who brought Htoo to Whitehorse, to try and affect change from Canada.
Stronger sanctions and increased humanitarian aid to Burma are two things Canada can be doing, said Bagnell.
He also wants to see Canada asking for a resolution from the United Nations security council to look into past humanitarian crimes in Burma.
“To have this United Nations resolution would be very difficult, however,” said Bagnell.
“China and Russia have veto power (on the council) and would never let that go through.”
This is the case even though “nobody can deny the crimes that went on there,” said Htoo.
Htoo hasn’t been back to his country of birth since he fled following the 1988 uprising. And he doesn’t plan to return, unless things change.
“I don’t trust the military,” he said.
They are trying to lure activists back to the country to give the appearance that things have improved, said Htoo.
“But I don’t want to take that risk. I wouldn’t go back until Burma is free.”
And although that may still be a ways off, Htoo lives in hope, looking to countries like Indonesia, which gained its first fair election in 1999 after almost 50 years of military rule.
“I’m committed, I’m stronger,” said Htoo.
But he is still frustrated by the military leaders in Burma.
“Buddha said nothing is permanent, (the military leaders) should know this.”
Although not a practicing Buddhist himself, the teachings of Buddha have heavily influenced the way Htoo lives his life.
The military do not want to pave the way for change, a decision that is based purely on ego, he said.
But the desire is still strong amongst the people of Burma to gain their ever-elusive dream of democracy, he said.
“And until that time comes, the fight will continue”
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