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Refugees Recall ‘Saffron Revolution’

By The Irrawaddy  •  September 28, 2010

By Alex Ellgee

It was a day like any other. Kyaw Kyaw Htun, a 19-year-old university student, lived outside Rangoon, so when he started the day he had heard nothing of the clashes taking place between monk-led demonstrators and troops on the capital’s streets.

“I knew that some monks were marching around town but I did not know how many people were involved,” he said in an interview on the third anniversary of the so-called “Saffron Revolution.”

He made his way to the Internet cafe where he worked part-time and then discovered the full scale of the confrontation between demonstrators and armed forces.

A colleague was preparing to join the demonstration. He told Kyaw Kyaw Htun that the entire population of Rangoon was joining with the monks and that now was the people’s opportunity “to put an end to their suffering.”

Kyaw Kyaw Htun, using a pseudonym, admits now that he was scared because he had never been involved in politics before. But “many people were going so it felt alright.”

He and a group of friends traveled by bus to downtown Rangoon. When they arrived near Sule Pagoda he saw thousands of civilians and monks crowded around and facing a barricade.

“I could not believe my eyes when I first saw all the people,” said Kyaw Kyaw Htun, now a refugee in Thailand, living a camp in Tak Province, near the Thai-Burmese border.

“ I was concerned but all the people’s faces and the monks praying gave me energy to get involved,” he said.

He marched through pouring rain with the monks. He said he felt invincible and was sure the people were going to win and see their demands met. However, on the second day everything changed.

At the bus stop where he had taken the bus the day before there was a group of men with walkie talkies. When two monks boarded the bus, Kyaw Kyaw Htun heard one of the men speak into his radio, “two oranges rolling.”
When they arrived downtown, news of monasteries being raided at night were circulating.

After a couple of hours of tense standoff between troops and civilians, the soldiers were ordered to charge. “Next to me a young girl was just standing, I heard a gunshot and she was on the floor bleeding and dying next to me,” he said.

Images of the brutality of the crackdown hang on the walls of Kaba Lone Monastery, near Umpium refugee camp. Three years on, Kyaw Kyaw Htun and hundreds of others have come together to remember those who fell and reflect on the past.

For many of the participants, the camp has become their home. The ceremony   at the monastery is a sober affair, with donations to monks, talks by various ethnic and political leaders and a political song by some young people.

Following the crackdown military intelligence combed the streets of Rangoon hunting down dissidents. Thousands fled to the Thai-Burmese border, where they joined more than 140,000 refugees in border camps  “None of us wanted to flee, but we had no choice,” said Kyaw Htun Htun.

Another refugee, Htay Htay Win, described the difficulties of camp existence.  “Life is not easy here,” she said.

After participating in three decades of protests she felt compelled to join in the Saffron Revolution. She noticed one difference between the 1988 uprising and 2007 – “Before, they told us they were going to shoot,” she said. “This time they just fired their guns.”

Asked whether she felt the revolution helped Burma, she replied: “We saw how evil the government is. I just hope everyone remembers those people who gave their blood for our country.”

The refugees are worried about the possibility of being repatriated to Burma after the November election. Thailand’s foreign minister has been quoted in the domestic media as saying: “As the Burmese government is holding elections later this year, we should help those who live outside their country to return home and resume their lives in Burma.”

One of the speakers at the ceremony, Toe Aung, said: “If we were sent back to Burma it is sure we will have to go to prison for long time.”

Toe Aung was a key organizer of the 2007 demonstrations and has a long political history and several prison terms behind him.  Aung San Suu Kyi asked him to coordinate NLD youth.

Together with other concerned refugees, Toe Aung has written to the Thai government “requesting not to return us.”  No reply has yet been received.

Toe Aung has been hoping for another uprising in Burma, but “there has been no chance to organize another revolution like 2007.” Informers were everywhere in the border area, he said.

U Klarina, a monk and one of the organizers of the Saffron Revolution, believes that another uprising could occur. “Yes it is possible, but we have a lot to organize,” he said.

However, with the November election fast approaching and the regime coming closer every day to legitimizing its rule, hope for another uprising is fading. Yet a new generation has been inspired by the events of September 2007.
“If the Saffron revolution never happened then I would never have become involved in politics,” said Kyaw Kyaw Htun, 22.

“It changed my life and whether it is realistic or not I will go back and continue where I left off.”

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