My former colleagues in Burma are preparing a special commemorative ceremony to be held next week to honor a fallen hero, Thet Win Aung. They’ve asked me to write an essay about him, as they plan to publish a book about him on the sixth anniversary of his death. For several days I’ve been unable to complete the task.
It reminds me that I was also incapable of reporting on Thet Win Aung’s death in October 2006, while I was working for a Burmese broadcast media outlet in the U.S. I remember my energy was completely drained and my heart sank as I listened to Thet Win Aung’s father explain to me the details of his son’s death in a Mandalay prison. As an activist-turned-journalist, I always hoped I would not have to report on the jailing, torture, and deaths of my former colleagues still inside military-ruled Burma. But I never got my wish. Those tragedies were the order of the day in Burma. They were never simply news stories to me, and yet a single death on October 16, 2006, in a single junta-run prison, broke my heart and brought me closer to these stories than ever before.
Thet Win Aung was my close colleague during Burma’s democratic struggle in 1988, as well as my childhood friend. We attended the same class and lived in the same township, and spent our teenage years playing guitar and soccer together. We stayed in the same hideouts when we were engaged in pro-democracy politics and were on the run together to evade arrest by Military Intelligence. Our childhood friendship was deepened by our shared commitment to Burma’s cause for democracy and human rights. This commitment sustained our dedication and hope in the darkest period of our lives. But he was cruelly forced to leave us. The parting was undue, and final.
When the initial student demonstrations of the 1988 popular uprising broke out on university campuses, Thet Win Aung and I secretly organized a student union in our high school, and contacted other high school and university student activists. Since 1962, when the military regime banned the university student unions and dynamited the student union building at Rangoon University, union membership—let alone organizing a union—became illegal. Thet Win Aung played an instrumental role in the founding of our national high school student union in 1988.
Leading up to the 8-8-88 (“four eights”) mass uprising that occurred throughout the country on Aug. 8, 1988—an uprising calling for democracy—he and I wrote and produced student union statements in the attic of his house. This political literature was etched into inked wax paper and “copied” page by page, using a fluorescent tube, since we didn’t have access to printers or Xerox machines. The original was set face up in a wooden tray with a blank piece of paper over it. Then the tube was rolled across the paper and the copy removed. Each copy had to be produced separately. The pamphlets had to be packed into many parcels so that each package could be easily and safely distributed to the different student activist teams. Thet Win Aung worked out all these details with tremendous patience and ingenuity.
After I went into hiding in July 1989 to evade arrest by the junta, Thet Win Aung was taken into a Military Intelligence camp for interrogation, since the military knew he was my close colleague. He was in an interrogation center for several weeks. Despite being severely tortured, Thet Win Aung refused to reveal any information about other activists. In fact, he was arrested, interrogated, and tortured several times throughout the first half of the 1990s, but never betrayed his colleagues or the cause.
Once when visiting my hideout, he happened to talk to me about one of the torture incidents during his imprisonment. The prison authorities stripped him, tied him to a pole, and beat him severely with a wooden stick. After looking at the scars on his shoulders and torso, I asked him, “How could you manage to stay strong in face of such attempts to breaking your spirit?” He looked at me, smiled, and said: “Honestly speaking, moods never stay constant. At times my feelings are down, and other times they are up. I think that’s natural.” He paused and continued, “The most important thing that enables me to keep going despite the up and down of my emotions is that I never give up my self-respect and my commitment to my colleagues.” Those words were very simple, but they’ve always stayed with me, deep in my heart.
When the military cracked down on the demonstrators and organizers of the 1996 student movement, many student activists, including Thet Win Aung, were at great risk. He struggled hard to find a hideout where he could stay, even for a few days at a time. But he had made up his mind to stay inside Burma as long as he could. Thet Win Aung and I moved to an area controlled by an ethnic minority rebel group that had signed a cease-fire agreement with the junta. But the military was able to track us down. We were constantly on the move. Eventually, we decided to make our way to the Thai-Burmese border in late 1997. In August 1997, Thet Win Aung and I, along with three other student activists, fled to Thailand by walking through the jungle for five days. By the time we arrived in Thailand, Thet Win Aung had malaria and had to be hospitalized in Bangkok.
As an exile, Thet Win Aung felt cut off from the people he loved and served. Soon after we arrived in Thailand, he discussed with me his idea of returning to Burma to pursue non-violent political activities. Out of the five of us who snuck into Thailand together, one had already gone back to Burma. He was arrested by the military and sentenced to death in early 1998. Rather than being frightened by this news, Thet Win Aung felt an even greater obligation to return to Burma and continue his underground activities. He ignored our pleas to remain in exile, and we eventually prepared for his return.
I can’t forget the final days when we discussed day and night the details of his mission once he got back to Burma. I kept reminding him to put his safety first, and provided him with emergency exit plans.
One early morning in August 1998, we stood together at the entrance of our hideout in Mae Sot, a Thai border town, waiting for the contact person who would take Thet Win Aung back to Burma. Though the motorbike had arrived, we were still going over what we had discussed. We hugged each other tightly, and I whispered to him: “Keep the three gems (Buddha, dhamma, and Sangha) in your heart. We’ll see each other again.” Then he got on the bike and left. I watched his back until the bike disappeared. I tried not to think that it might be our last meeting.
It turned out to be the last time I ever saw him. After he had coordinated several student movements supporting Aung San Suu Kyi’s political actions in 1998, Military Intelligence launched a manhunt for him, and finally captured him in October 1998. He was severely tortured during interrogation. The regime alleged publicly that he was receiving support from foreign sources (mainly from me), and sentenced him to 52 years in prison, later increased to 59 years. He was sent to Kalay Prison in northwestern Burma, far away from his family and far from medical care.
Thet Win Aung, however, did not bow down. He staged hunger strikes to protest the inhumane conditions in the prison. The authorities beat him and sent him to another prison in the far north where malaria is rampant. His malaria infection worsened and paralyzed him from the waist down. Then he was sent back to Mandalay Prison in central Burma, where he was wheelchair-bound.
The regime turned a deaf ear to calls from abroad for his immediate release, notably because of his worsening health. The regime even re-arrested his brother Pyone Cho on September 30, 2006: Pyone Cho had already served a 14-year prison term and was released in 2003. His condition and his brother’s arrest pushed him too far, and Thet Win Aung collapsed suddenly early in the morning of October 16, 2006. He received no medical treatment before his star dimmed and fell forever.
My life, my work, all of it, is based on words: using them to inform, to enlighten, and to heal. And yet I could find no words to console Thet Win Aung’s father when I spoke to him that October evening in 2006. At the depth of his sorrow, I felt I was with him, sharing what Barrington Moore, Jr. has called “the unity of misery.”
When I reported on the death of Thet Win Aung, I could not pretend to distance myself as a reporter, as if I had nothing to do with him.
Once again, there’s no point in making a show of detachment and neutrality. As a friend and colleague, let me pay tribute to Thet Win Aung here, and to all of his countless sacrifices.
This article first appeared in Foreign Policy online on Oct. 11, 2012
Min Zin is a journalist in exile and a teaching fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Journalism. The views expressed in this article are his own.