The Revolutionaries Who Are Now Refugees

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The story of Burmese insurgents who India threw into prison as ‘terrorists’

While Aung Sang Syu Kii prepares for a term in Myanmar’s parliament, a small group of Burmese revolutionaries in Delhi prepare themselves for new life as refugees in the Netherlands, after spending 13 years in Indian jails on charges of gun running that turned out to be flimsy. They are of varied ethnic origin and schools of thought, but are united in their fight for democracy in Myanmar. Among them is a monk whose smile disguises the sacrifices he’s made, a graduate who could write a thesis on corruption and politics inside Indian jails, a father who finds solace in photographs of a daughter he could never meet, and a man who refuses to die

“Did India get independence only through non-violence?” asks 47-year-old Thein Oung Gyaw. You say ‘no’, although you’re not quite sure, because the man’s self-worth seems to depend on it. He is one of the 32 Burmese prisoners released from Presidency jail in Kolkata last year after 13 years of imprisonment. He has been called a ‘freedom fighter’, ‘revolutionary’, ‘armed rebel’ and ‘gun runner’, even a ‘terrorist’, and now, a ‘refugee’. In a way, what you choose to call him says something about you—where your own sympathies lie, even guilt.

Since his release, Thein Oung Gyaw has lived in Vikaspuri. This dusty suburb of Delhi has a sizeable population of Burmese refugees, people who prefer to smile rather than speak. Even if they decided to tell you their story, you wouldn’t believe it. And if you did, you may still consider their struggle futile. Such is the fate of dislocated revolutionaries.

Thein Oung Gyaw was arrested on Landfall Island in the Andaman Sea during Operation Leech, conducted by Indian security forces in 1998. In this operation, Indian forces claimed to have caught an international ring of gun-runners supplying weapons to insurgents in the Northeast; in all, 73 people were arrested, most of them Burmese, and an arms cache recovered that was reported to be second only to the 1995 Purulia arms drop in size. Six alleged gun-runners were killed.

It was a murky operation. Initial investigative media reports claimed that evidence which could have revealed its details had been tampered with; a newspaper called Sunday published photographs of a man in olive green giving the seized speedboats a whitewash. It aroused suspicions of something bigger at play—covert cooperation with Myanmar’s military regime to crack down on Burmese rebels on Indian soil.

No chargesheet was filed against those arrested for the first eight years. Of the 73 prisoners, 36 claimed allegiance to either the Karen National Union or National United Party of Arakan, two outfits of armed insurgents formed by ethnic minorities. Of Myanmar’s seven ethnic minority groups, several claim to have had kingdoms of their own before British rule, which, together with persecution by the majoritarian junta in power, underpins their calls to secede. The news channel Al Jazeera has referred to the Karen insurgency along the Thai-Burma border—in existence since 1949—as the “longest ongoing war in the world”.

If Operation Leech was carried out in aid of Myanmar’s junta, plausibly in exchange for covert cross-border help against India’s own Northeast insurgents (or as a policy shift), it could be interpreted as a betrayal of sorts. According to the Burmese rebels detained, they had reached Landfall Island as part of a secret deal with an Indian military intelligence officer, a certain Colonel Grewal, who was fluent in Burmese and had been helping them out for a while. He even had a Burmese alias, Colonel Win Nye Win. They claimed they had given the colonel around $55,000 in cash and kind (including gold). In return, he was to let them use Landfall Island, an uninhabited part of the Andaman & Nicobar archipelago, as an offshore ‘Arakan Army’ base. But on the day of their arrival, their leaders were lined up and shot. It was a huge blow to the Arakan Army, which had deployed top human and other resources for this mission. Such was the blow that it could never regroup again.

It took more than a decade of pressure from human rights and solidarity groups, consistent investigative reports, and a rigorous case fought by a small group of lawyers for the prisoners to finally be released in May 2011. The court of law pronounced the Burmese prisoners guilty only of entering India illegally. Given the years they had already spent in jail, they were freed right away.

At present, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recognises them as asylum seekers, and the Dutch government has offered them asylum. This June, they are scheduled to leave Vikaspuri for the Netherlands, where “emails will be our bullets, the keyboard our guns”, as one of them quips. They intend to keep working for their cause as a pressure group.

In the life of a revolutionary, flexibility is important. At times, you must wield a gun. At times, you must talk like a diplomat. And at times, you will be expected to talk in Dutch, even though you don’t even speak English or quite know where Europe is. It is compulsory for the group to pass Dutch language tests to qualify for citizenship of the Netherlands. Right now, only two of the group have been to university and speak English, the rest are simple rural folk. All this makes them nervous about what the future holds. But asylum is the best deal on offer, and it’s the closest they know they’ll get to leading legitimate rather than shadowy lives. In preparation, one of the group’s leaders has brought a world map and hung it in his flat so they can all pinpoint where they are headed. Now comes the hard part: learning a foreign language.

They must also make up for lost time. Being treated like terrorists wasn’t the worst part of imprisonment, it was the waste of their time. “If we really were terrorists, we would have committed more acts of terror after coming out, just out of anger,” says Thein Oung Gyaw, one of the two with a university education, “In jail, they did nothing to improve our minds or change our ideology. They didn’t even give us basic English or computer classes, nothing to occupy our time with. We got access to newspapers only after a week’s hunger strike.”

If jail had anything to teach them, a motley group of former farmers, monks and students, it was about what life in a ‘free country’ like India was really like. They were exposed to aspects of democracy that most people who fight for it aren’t even aware of.

As a young boy, Khin Maung Kyi was studying to be a monk when his parents were picked up for forced labour on a road construction site. The junta didn’t allow him to as much as meet them. So he ran away and joined the Arakan Army. He was only 19 when Operation Leech took place and he was arrested. A quiet man now, he meditates daily and prefers to smile rather than answer questions. When interviewed by the UNHCR, it unsettled the officer questioning him. “Is he hiding something?” the officer enquired of the interpreter. But even this young man of few words has something to say of his time in Kolkata’s Presidency jail. “I didn’t know that rich people commit crimes, that too for money,” says Khin Maung Kyi.

Thein Oung Gyaw is far more outspoken. “I call the Kolkata jail a corruption academy,” he says, “not a correction home.” Even a simple task like making tea, he observed, took an act of bribery—to get milk and sugar in exchange. He also heard firsthand accounts of booth capturing and votes acquired at gunpoint, and met criminals serving life terms who had politicians calling on their mobile phones. So keen was his interest in how Indian democracy works on the ground, that he is now something of an expert on West Bengal politics. The last state election, he assures you, was comparatively fair.

Surrounded by criminals of all kinds, it was no small irony that the Burmese political prisoners were seen as the worst of the lot. They were ‘terrorists’. Popular opinion began changing only once public protests were raised against their captivity, especially by eminent Indians like Colonel Lakshmi Sehgal, an elderly freedom fighter who expressed vocal sympathy for their cause. West Bengal’s sports minister even organised a football match in their honour.

Within jail, a gangster serving a life sentence was the first to soften up to them. “You’re very lucky,” Thein Oung Gyaw once told this gangster, “You live in a democracy, you have rights.”

“You’re very lucky,” the gangster replied, “I am a criminal. You are a freedom fighter. Compared to you, I feel ashamed.”

Not that a revolutionary is never troubled by self-doubt. There are always moments when your actions feel as wrong as they seem right. Pho Cho is familiar with such thoughts. He has gone through his family photo album so often, some pages have come off. When he had left his family to join the Karen insurgency, his daughter was three years old, and his wife, pregnant. Today, he has two daughters, both in university, and he has never met the younger one, who is a young lady of 27 now. Through letters, Pho Cho had promised his daughters whatever they wished once they passed their class 10 exams. After doing so, his elder daughter wrote him a letter saying what she wanted. She wanted her father back.

At 57, Soe Naing has walked away from death at so many turns, he has almost lost count. He has lived in the jails of three different countries with no more than some internal haemorrhage to show for it, but the other scars he bears are grievous.

Decades ago, Soe Naing’s father lost an eye to torture meted out by the junta hellbent on extracting details of his whereabouts. As a student, he witnessed the execution of his movement’s leader. Caught along with fellow revolutionaries, he himself was thrown into a ditch, his hands tied behind his back. Almost 20 people died that night, the leader included. But Soe Naing did not. While he lay in the ditch, he had a vision of his mother’s face praying, before a soldier turned up with a telegram ordering that he be left alive. He was to be interrogated instead. Soe Naing was illegally detained and tortured by the Burmese junta.

Soe Naing’s release from Rangoon jail was no less miraculous. In 1976, General Ne Win invited a monk from Sri Lanka to plant a Bodhi tree for good luck. The monk agreed on one condition: that the general set all political prisoners free.

Later in life, as part of the Arakan Army, Soe Naing was trained with wooden guns in the jungle. This was the best he could get—unlike his younger brother, a captain in the Burmese military—since the rebels didn’t have enough funds for real guns. His first experience of using a real weapon was on an actual battlefield. Gunbattles, artillery explosions, torture and near starvation, he has been through it all, and with a state of mind kept calm by prayers.

“Why do you think you’re still alive?” I ask. He laughs. And so does everybody else in the room. Prayers, Soe Naing suspects, keep him alive. Everyday, he says, like fellow Arakans instilled with this sense of Buddhist discipline, he prays for peace in the world and happiness for all.

“When you pray for yourself, only you benefit,” says Dynalin, a fellow Arakan friend of Soe Naing, “But when you pray for everyone, the whole world benefits if your prayers are answered.” With friends and relatives often fighting on opposing sides, and with the saving of a life sometimes calling for the taking of another, such prayers assume special significance.

No one can avoid death, Soe Naing continues. The day it comes, he says, it comes. “But death for us is different from [that of] others,” he says, “because we are working for the people.”