Manal Ahmad on the tumultuous life of Min Zin, one of Burma’s bravest political activists
(published in The Friday Times in two parts on August 7th and 14th, 2009)
One stormy night in Rangoon in 1991, there was a loud knock on the door of political activist Ye Myint’s house. Ye Myint stumbled out of bed, rubbing his eyes. “Those damned MIS. Got nothing better to do than wake people up for their phony ‘guest registration’. Well,” he shot a look up at the rafters, “they won’t find anyone here.”
Ye Myint opened the door, and three uniformed Burmese military intelligence officers stormed in, followed by a young local policeman.
“We know he’s here! Where is he?” the officers shouted, banging on the walls with their rifle butts.
“I don’t know who you’re talking about,” Ye Myint replied calmly.
“You know very well. Min Zin!”
There was silence. The rain hammered on the tin roof, and somewhere a floorboard creaked. The policeman turned around. Ye Myint followed his gaze, and suddenly his heart skipped a beat. The back door of the house was ajar, swinging in the wind.
The policeman turned back and caught Ye Myint’s eye. The officers hadn’t seen.
“O.K. guys,” he said, casually opening up his longyi (sarong) in an attempt to retie it, thus blocking the open door from view. “We’re done looking.” He glanced at Ye Myint. “He’s not here”.
Huddled underneath the neighbor’s stilted house, caked in mud and dripping wet, a 16 year-old boy with long black hair watched the moving figures through the back door that he had forgotten to close behind him in panic. They had come in so quickly, he hadn’t had time to climb up to his regular hiding place in the rafters.
Too late, he thought breathlessly. Any second now, they would see the open door, rush out of the house, track his muddy footprints, and it would all be over….
But they didn’t. They got into their armored jeep and left.
He couldn’t believe it. He had escaped them – again.
On a balmy spring afternoon in Berkeley, California seventeen years later, a tall, pleasant-faced Asian man walks into a café on Euclid Avenue, orders his customary medium black coffee, and settles down in a cozy corner with a library copy of “Military-Civilian Relations in Southeast Asia”. Surrounded by students at this popular university study spot, he easily blends into the crowd. “It feels good to be back at school,” Min Zin smiles.
The 35-year old graduate student has reason to be happy – he made UC Berkeley history this year by becoming the first person admitted to a Master’s program without ever having finished high school, let alone go through college. The UC Berkeley Graduate Division called him “the exception”.
Min Zin doesn’t consider himself exceptional. The fourth of five children born to middle-class Burmese parents, he spent most of his high school days driving around the streets of Rangoon in a packed Sedan with the radio blaring from the windows, or writing schmaltzy love letters on behalf of his besotted male friends.
“I didn’t study very well, as a kid,” he says sheepishly. “I was constantly making trouble in class. They’d call my father to school all the time to complain about me!”
Min Zin’s father, U Mya Than, used to be an English teacher at Min Zin’s high school before he opened up a private tuition center in his own home. He was also a committed dissident, and slept with anti-government pamphlets under his pillow, which were surreptitiously thrown into people’s houses on certain nights of the week.
“My father was involved in politics since he was a student at Rangoon University,” Min Zin says. When the military took power in Burma in 1962, one of the first things it did was ban student unions and demolish the two-storey student union building at Rangoon University, a hotbed of political activism from the time of the freedom struggle against the British, and the birthplace of all of Burma’s national heroes, including General Aung San. That day, when he saw the historic building reduced to rubble and dozens of his peers killed point blank by military rifles, U Mya Than was radicalized. “He didn’t attend his own convocation in protest.”
But Min Zin remembers his father a little differently – dressed in a crisp white collarless shirt and printed blue sarong, sipping malt in a library full of Karl Marx, Bertrand Russell, Burmese poetry and English classics.
“He didn’t smoke. He didn’t drink. He didn’t chew koon (beetle leaf),” Min Zin recalls, his voice brimming with admiration. “He was the coolest guy I knew. We all wanted to impress our dad.”
And the best way to do that, as the kids soon learnt, was not to score a 100% on every school exam – the standard of Burmese public education had dropped so low since the military nationalized all schools that grades didn’t mean much – but to read a book, story or poem from dad’s library and then excitedly run back to tell him what it was about. Reading in English scored extra favor. “He would reward us by taking us to the cinema, or to eat a hamburger,” Min Zin says with a grin. “It was the best treat ever.”
But the days of carefree adolescence, the summers spent in the countryside climbing haystacks and picking tamarinds, the pranks, the crushes, the water fights at the Thin Gyan New Year Festival – everything changed in 1988.
It was the year Min Zin’s elder brother and sister, student activists at the Rangoon University, were arrested at a peaceful protest within their college campus. It was the year of the largest civilian uprising in Burmese history, and of the bloodiest crackdown, when, within the space of two months, more than 10,000 people were killed. It was the year that brought Aung San Suu Kyi back from England to her native country to lead the burgeoning democracy movement; it was the year that Min Zin, the cheeky kid who always grabbed the biggest naan for breakfast and pilfered all the shrimps from grandma’s soup, decided that he was going to join it.
A 14-year old boy in a dark green school longyi stood on the verandah whistling Michael Jackson’s “Beat it”. A woman opened the door. Her glossy black hair was swept back in a tight bun. “Where were you?” she asked tersely.
He pecked her on the check and darted in. “At school. Where else?”
She turned around and folded her arms across her chest. “Don’t lie to me, Min Zin.”
“But I was,” the sunburned teenager insisted.
“That’s enough!” She reached out to grab a broomstick from behind the door. The boy tried to dodge her, but she was quicker, and cornered him. The broomstick came swooping down; he yelled; but before it could touch his body, a stern voice called out: “Stop.”
Toe Toe Yee turned to look at her husband, stunned. The broomstick fell from her hands with a clatter, and she ran out of the room, her eyes streaming with tears.
U Mya Than approached his son, who was standing in the corner looking bewildered. Putting his hands on the boy’s shoulders, he said, “Listen, Min Zin, we know you weren’t at school. We know you were at a student union meeting.” Toe Toe Yee could be heard sobbing in the other room. U Mya Than lowered his voice.
“But try to understand – your mother is really upset. Your brother is in jail. Our house is always under surveillance. And you are still so young…” He sighed, his eyes downcast, as if afraid of the fear they might betray. “Look, I’m not asking you not to do this. That’s your decision. Just, think about your mom.”
It was a plea, U Mya Than’s first and last – but it came too late. And Min Zin’s childishly defiant gaze back at him said, “It was you who raised me to be this way.”
Min Zin sips his coffee, and nibbles off a piece of his butter croissant. Wearing blue jeans and a pair of black-rimmed rectangular glasses, his face clean-shaven and his jet-black hair cropped short, you wouldn’t know that he was co-founder of Burma’s first national high school student union. You wouldn’t know that he accompanied Aung Sang Suu Kyi on election campaigns before she was first placed under house arrest and garnered the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, or that he carried the flag of the fighting peacock, official symbol of Burmese student resistance, at the fore of the 1988 demonstration.
You wouldn’t know that Min Zin is in exile.
“On July 18th 1989, the military intelligence came to my house to arrest me. I wasn’t there, so they arrested my dad.” He winces at the memory. “When I came home, my mom said, ‘Run run run, they already got your dad!’ Since then, I’ve been running.” At age 16, before he even graduated from high school, Min Zin was a most wanted man in Burma.
His father was released on no charges four months later. But what with all his children so deeply involved in politics and one of his sons on the run, arrests and interrogations became periodic. Any attempt to directly contact his parents could imperil their safety, their very lives, so for the next nine years, Min Zin didn’t even try. “I think the hardest thing about that time was staying away from family.”
He lived wherever he found a floor to sleep on and a meal a day – from the houses of friends and sympathetic strangers to the poor ethnic enclaves in the countryside to Buddhist temples. “You couldn’t stay in one place more than 3 months, otherwise they’d find you.” In those hours and weeks and months of forced seclusion, Min Zin taught himself guitar, started writing for student union publications and local magazines under various pen names, continued organizing, recruiting, and – reading.
“I spent most of my time reading,” he says. Sitting in a dusty attic or inside a water tank with cockroaches scurrying around him, while the MIS conducted “guest registration” – a misnomer for unannounced fugitive searches – Min Zin consumed book after book his friends procured for him from the British and American embassy libraries.
“I read everything I could get my hands on – Kafka, Dostoevsky, Jean-Paul Sartre, Descartes. Sometimes it would take me a whole day to finish one paragraph – but I sat there, with an English dictionary by my side, and just read, read, read.”
The military junta stepped up their hunt for Min Zin after the student demonstrations of December 1996 – the largest in Burma since the epic ’88 uprising – which Min Zin himself had helped orchestrate. With the entire clout of the MIS bent upon his capture and even the monasteries unsafe, Min Zin knew his time in Burma was up. So, in the summer of 1997, along with four colleagues, the 24-year old activist decided to flee to Thailand.
The truck hurtled down the muddy path, iron chains dragging behind its wheels. Black clouds thundered above.
They had trekked through the jungle for four days now. On the fifth, they reached Border Point 14, a camp on Burma’s southeastern border where the Karenni ethnic minority had a ceasefire agreement with the generals in Rangoon. Just as they had bathed and eaten their first proper meal in days, Burmese soldiers raided the camp without warning, claiming to be on the trail for five jewel smugglers. The camp’s leader quickly sent the fugitives off with a guide in a four-wheel drive, the only vehicle the camp possessed.
Suddenly, it stopped.
“What’s the matter? Why aren’t you moving?”
“I can’t, it’s stuck!” the driver cried.
The next thing they knew, the five fugitives were outside, flashlights in hand, scrambling up the steep, slippery slope, the last obstacle that separated them from Thailand.
His hands were wet and grimy. The earth gave away under his feet with each step. It was raining so hard, he felt like he was drowning. “Go, go, go!” the guide yelled above him, like a slave driver, toughened to the core from living years in perpetual flux on this dangerous frontier.
His flashlight stopped working. The inky darkness circled in around him, seizing his throat, suffocating him. Tears streamed from his eyes, mixing with the rain on his cheeks.
“I can’t do this, I can’t go on,” he cried. He felt himself falling, sliding into the great, dark abyss below, the obscure prison cell in Coco Island, the infinite days of torture, a cold, miserable, lonely death…
A strong hand grabbed his forearm, and pulled him up. He opened his eyes. It was Ko Thein, one of his closest friends.
“Come on, Min Zin. We’re almost there.”
And they were.
They had crossed over the mountain into Maesareing. They were in Thailand. They were safe.
“Ko Thein secretly returned to Burma a couple of months later. He was caught. They tortured him severely, and gave him the death penalty.” The whirring of the coffee maker and the clatter of dishes punctuates Min Zin’s voice. “He was one of my oldest friends.”
Min Zin ended up staying in Thailand for four years, longer than he had ever intended. “I couldn’t go back – the military had orders to arrest me wherever they found me, and were offering rewards for my capture.” He threw himself into work, broadcasting educational programs for the Burmese service of Radio Free Asia, and writing political analyses for The Irrawaddy, an English-language newsmagazine published by Burmese exiles in Thailand.
Then, in 2005, when his mother was diagnosed with lung cancer, Min Zin accepted a job at Radio Free Asia’s Washington D.C. bureau to help pay for her treatment. It was his second stint in the United States – he had spent a year there in 2001, as a visiting scholar at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley.
A year after he moved to Washington D.C., Toe Toe Yee passed away. But Min Zin was able to meet her once in Thailand to say goodbye – the first time mother and son set eyes on each other since 1989, when he was 16 and she had told him to run for his life.
“She had changed a lot,” his eyes glaze over with the memory of that day. “She had lost her hair, because of the chemo. She always had such beautiful black hair…” He pauses. “I felt sad, but then, at least I got to meet her.”
One person Min Zin didn’t get to say goodbye to was U Mya Than, his father. He died of a heart attack a few months after Min Zin escaped to Thailand in 1997.
“He was my role model,” the pain in Min Zin’s voice is palpable. “And I know he’d be so proud of me, if he could see me right now – writing in English, doing radio shows from America, studying at Berkeley!” He smiles at the thought. “He was the one who always wanted us to be… outstanding. But he couldn’t see any of this at all.”
Now, 8,000 miles away from his home country, Min Zin is studying for a Master’s degree in Asian Studies at America’s highest-ranked public university. He holds a green card, writes regular columns for the Far Eastern Economic Review and Wall Street Journal, and travels all over the United States and Europe raising awareness about Burma’s democracy movement.
He’s even seen Madonna, live in concert with his girlfriend Sylvia. “It was amazing,” he recounts with a laugh. Sylvia is also Burmese, and works as a hardware engineer in Silicon Valley. The two share a cozy little apartment near Fremont, carpeted plush white with a study full of books, a miniature Buddhist temple and a portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi on the wall.
But in spite of the genuine smile on his face when speaks of his life in America, Min Zin carries an enormous burden in his heart.
“The guilt…the guilt is very difficult to erase,” he says slowly. “It’s a feature of my life. When I think of my colleagues, of my brother, when I visit Thailand, and see how the refugees there are living…” his voice trails off.
Images of his friends and his brother, dressed in the mud-brown uniform of Burma’s notorious prisons, their knees raw, their cheeks hollow, their ankles blue from the heavy steel chains they were made to drag around on their feet all day, every day, for months and years on end, because they were dissidents, because they lied to protect Min Zin’s whereabouts; the tortures that eluded his own body continually torment his soul.
So when Min Zin was selected as one of four young activists to appear in a recent MTV documentary celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela, the first thing he asked the South African Nobel Peace Prize winner during their 45-minute filmed conversation in Johannesburg was: “How did you transform your guilt to become positive force?”
“And he replied: ‘You always need to reconnect yourself with something larger than yourself – a bigger goal’.” Min Zin utters Mandela’s words with the fluency of an oft-repeated mantra. “Otherwise, if you don’t see the larger picture, you can get really depressed.” He looks down. “It happened a lot, it happened a lot.”
For the moment, Min Zin doesn’t look depressed. Hanging out with students from the Berkeley Journalism School, where he teaches a weekly seminar about Asian current affairs, the unassuming, soft-spoken Burman is always up for a laugh, a coffee and a conversation.
He’s the lucky one. He got away. He made it to the land of dreams.
But what is the price of such luck?
It was 10 ‘o’ clock on a crisp September night in 1988, and Rangoon was just falling asleep. The moonlight gleamed on the golden spires of the Shwedagon Pagoda, where several dozen student activists were secretly camped for the night. A teenage boy in a white T-shirt could be seen weaving door-to-door through the narrow streets, a sack slung over his back.
“Rice for the activists, please? Food for the activists?”
The men and women at the doors smiled at him in the dark. Their faces were gaunt, their hands weathered, and there were holes in the shirts. But their eyes were alight with hope. They plied the boy with bags full of basmati rice.
“Thank you, kind sir. Thank you!” the boy fervently whispered. “I promise you, you will get democracy! We’ll do it for you!” And they would smile again, bless him with prayers, and close the door.
He was young then, and perhaps he didn’t exactly know what he was talking about – what the meaning of democracy was. All he knew was that an entire population living in constant fear and deprivation, at the mercy of a handful of powerful individuals, was wrong. It had to change.
Twenty years later, his knowledge is broader, his understanding of the world much deeper. He knows it will not be clean, simple or easy to get the change Burma has craved for forty-six years. He knows it will take years, maybe decades more, of patience, hard work, and compromises.
But even now, he is preparing. He is preparing to go back. Coming to America, being at Berkeley – these were all just steps on his return journey. When he does return, it will not be as a destitute fugitive, or an illiterate rabble-rouser who was expelled from high school; not as a guilty man, a criminal, a renegade.
No, he will return properly – confident, well-spoken, highly-educated, a professional journalist, teacher and UC Berkeley graduate, and an American citizen. He will carry within himself the legacy of his father, of Aung San Suu Kyi, of Nelson Mandela, of all his heroes; and he will make a difference in Burma, not in the impetuous ways of his youth, not through megaphones and street slogans, but through the ways he has come to value and respect most in his years of exile – through journalism and education.
Because Min Zin stills owes to the people of Burma. He owes them that one bag of rice – which, for the Burmese people, is life.