Freedom for Burma: Activists speak


MYINT THU and YE WIN are both in the 30-member central committee of the All Burma Student Democratic Front, formed after the students led a million-strong uprising nine years ago. Like other democratic activists, ABSDF members had to flee the repression of Burma's military dictatorship — the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). They took up armed struggle, but continued to lead and coordinate with the movement in Burma from their bases in the border areas.

Coming straight from their border base, Myint Thu and Ye Win are touring Australia to win more support for their struggle for freedom for Burma. They spoke to Green Left Weekly's EVA CHENG.

Explaining the current state of the democratic forces in Burma, Myint Thu stressed the important role of the underground alliance, the National Council for the Union of Burma, in unifying different ethnic and democratic forces struggling against the SLORC. Members of the union, which is based on the border, are the Democratic Alliance of Burma (consisting of 20 student and democratic groups, armed and unarmed), the National Democratic Front (consisting of 13 armed ethnic groups) and the Members of Parliament Union — Liberated Areas (consisting of National League for Democracy (NLD) candidates who won huge majorities in the 1990 election but were refused power by the SLORC).

Though scattered along the borders with Thailand, China, India and Bangladesh, these groups coordinate and share information with their underground branches, as well as other forces in Burma working in the interests of the union. Formal contacts are avoided because of suppression by the SLORC.

To maximise the impact of the opposition, all democratic groups supported the NLD — led by Aung San Suu Kyi — in the 1990 election. This support remains today, they said, even though the border forces are independent from the NLD.

The movement demands for democracy for all and national self-determination for the eight main ethnic groups are clear. It aims to organise the future Burma as a democratic federation.

However, its perspective on the exact type of social order it is fighting for is less precise. Ye Win said that a lot more detailed discussion still needs to take place, but for now activists are happy to unify under a broader constitution, into its fourth draft since 1995, which they plan to present to the people when they win power.

Burmese exile forces lobby established parties and governments in the developed countries for support, including Australia, but Ye Win emphasised that their focus is confined to winning support for sanctions against the SLORC. There is no perspective for a wider agenda of political collaboration. "We need to try to win international support, but we don't have too many illusions in that. We know the absolute priority remains to organise and educate our own people within Burma", he said.

Are there socialist forces involved in the Burmese struggle today? No, according to Myint Thu and Ye Win — at least not as socialists are understood among leftists in advanced capitalist countries.

The word "socialism" was hijacked by the military dictatorship of Ne Win, which ruled from the early '60s through its Burmese Socialist Program Party. Ye Win said people in Burma still have major psychological barriers to the whole idea of socialism. Individual activists within and outside Burma have studied socialist ideas and understand that it can stand for ideas different from what Ne Win represented, but these people do not have any significant impact in the movement yet, he said.

Based on these activists' account, the movement appears conscious of the need to educate and organise the people, and is actively doing this. Ye Win said a focus of mass education was to help the people realise that they are entitled to human rights and democracy. "Most of the people in Burma don't understand what rights are", he said, "but we must educate the people if we want to fight for freedom ourselves".

"There is no freedom of expression in Burma. With a rumour, you can be arrested by the intelligence", Ye Win said. But within the movement, there are all sorts of publications used to disseminate information and conduct discussions on strategies and broader issues. The bulletin for activists and grassroots organisations in the border areas is published weekly.

Many opposition groups in Burma are armed and the ethnic forces around the border have been engaged in armed struggle for self-determination for over 40 years. Asked if armed struggle is part of the tactics and strategies of their struggle, Ye Win said, "We will use all means on hand".