Crossing the Line
covering burma and southeast asia
Friday, May 24, 2019


Crossing the Line

By Aung Zaw/Mae Sot AUGUST, 2000 - VOLUME 8 NO.8

Two soldiers discuss their decision to leave an army that went too far. The 1988 uprising dramatically changed the lives of many soldiers in Burma’s Armed Forces, also known as the Tatmadaw. One of them was former captain Sai Win Kyaw, an ethnic Shan from northern Shan State. "We fought in the jungle against rebels. If we didn’t kill them, they would have killed us. It was fair game," says the former captain who now lives in exile. But when he and his soldiers were called to Rangoon to quell the democracy uprising of August 1988, "it was a completely different situation." "Soldiers were excited because most of them had never been to Rangoon," says Sai Win Kyaw. They were also surprised by the size of the crowds. Even more ominously, the attitude of some of the protestors towards the soldiers was openly contemptuous. At one point, his platoon encountered a group of demonstrators who gave them dirty looks and cursed them. "I thought it was a bad sign," he recalls. When soldiers began shooting at protestors gathered around City Hall just before midnight on August 8, Sai Win Kyaw and his troops were stationed at the nearby US embassy. "I heard gunfire and saw people running, but we did not participate in the shootings," he insists. Shortly after the carnage ended, his troops were sent to clear the roads, and he watched as fire engines cleaned the bloodstained streets. August 9 was the day that changed Sai Win Kyaw’s life. With his platoon positioned near the North Okkala Bridge to provide back up for Tatmadaw Unit One, he had a clear view of a sea of demonstrators surging along the road towards the bridge. Unit One then received orders to "engage the protestors," signaling that the slaughter was about to begin. Sai Win Kyaw saw a schoolgirl holding a portrait of independence hero Gen Aung San suddenly drop when the first bullet hit her. Then other people started falling. "I will never forget that moment," says the former officer, who joined the Defense Services Academy when he was just 18. He began to question why these unarmed people were being killed. "Why were such harsh measures being applied to deal with this kind of situation? I couldn’t understand it." From then on, he says, he stopped taking pride in being a soldier. Severe restrictions were imposed on army personnel to prevent disloyalty to the Tatmadaw. Soldiers were not allowed to go out or take leave to visit their relatives, and special bulletins denouncing democracy activists and foreign radio stations were circulated among soldiers. But many soldiers based in Rangoon did not believe this propaganda, according to Min Mone, a former member of Airborne 16 who later joined in the protests with many other members of his unit. "There were heated debates among us about whether Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was our leader," he recalls. Sai Win Kyaw and his soldiers were also deeply affected by the views of the activists. "We read many newsletters," he says, adding that they also listened to short-wave radio stations. In some cases, soldiers were also able to hear public speeches given by leaders of the pro-democracy movement, including Aung San Suu Kyi. To counter such influences, the military stepped up its propaganda offensive. Soldiers were told that Karen insurgents had been shipping weapons into Rangoon to conduct Beirut-style urban warfare. "We were told that we could be facing a situation like Lebanon at any time," states Sai Win Kyaw. Quietly, since early August, top generals had been setting the stage for a coup to end these "disturbances." If necessary, troops would be airlifted or moved around the city by helicopter in order to crush the demonstrations. "We were fully equipped (for this operation)," says the former captain. He and about 70 soldiers were placed under 24-hour alert and supplied with machine guns, anti-tank rockets and 60mm, 81mm and 103mm rockets. All of the equipment was brand new. But even as the generals were bracing for a final crackdown, many army officers and rank-and-file soldiers were crossing the line to join protestors. An estimated 450 defense personnel broke ranks in a small-scale mutiny, Sai Win Kyaw and Min Mone among them. Min Mone, an admirer of Fidel Ramos, the former Philippines general who had helped to topple the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, said that he decided to defect when he saw customs agents, police officers and members of the fire brigade joining protestors. "I thought of the ‘people’s power’ uprising in the Philippines," he says twelve years later. In early September, just before the army was ready to make its move, Sai Win Kyaw walked out of his compound and stopped a bus full of protestors. "Please take me to the nearest boycott committee," he remembers saying to the activists. This steady hemorrhage of defectors from the army, including soldiers with weapons, probably prompted the army to hit hard and fast on September 18.

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