Homecoming at last for a Myanmar son

When I returned to Myanmar (formerly Burma) in February last year after 24 years in exile, I thought my life had come full circle. But I was wrong.

This past week was my final true homecoming. It marked my first "8888" anniversary in Myanmar since the 1988 uprising ("8888" refers to the key pro- democracy protests of Aug 8, 1988). More importantly, the All Burma Students' Democratic Front (ABSDF), of which I was the foreign affairs secretary for a decade, signed a ceasefire pact with the Myanmar government last week. These events end the chapter of my life that sent me to the jungle and also end the role the students of 1988 have played in Myanmar's armed resistance movement.

I left the country following the bloody crackdown on unarmed students in the 1988 uprising as a graduate student. Like thousands of other students and professionals, I joined the ABSDF in the jungle on the Thai border with Myanmar. At the time, we firmly believed that armed struggle was the only option left for us to bring democracy to our homeland. We were determined to confront the Myanmar military.

Life in the jungle was tough. Malaria left no one untouched. Food was always in short supply. There was constant fear of Myanmar military attack, and few weapons to go around. Infighting featured prominently in our jungle life. Democracy was used cheaply - elections were frequent, even to elect commanders or to complain about the lack of salt in the jungle camps.

Yet in spite of the endless hardships and the countless bouts of malaria, we were happy and free, willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the nation. We had youthfulness, zeal and an honourable and idealistic purpose: to bring freedom and democracy to our country. We took this goal very seriously - many gave their lives.

We were well aware of the overwhelming challenges we faced and tremendous difference in resources between ourselves and our opponent. We had to approach the challenge systematically and had a lot to learn. We organised students into various camps, drafted a constitution and legal system, and tried to demonstrate we were capable of launching a revolution. In Thay Baw Boe camp, where I was the camp secretary, we established the "Jungle University" and adopted the slogan "Revolution is our school - our university".

Over the years, some friends lost hope. Progress towards our goal was hard to see. It was a long and winding road to freedom. Many who could not cope with endless uncertainty in the jungle were lured by the opportunities that refugee resettlement offered to end the grinding hardship. I remained with hundreds of others believing that we were doing something important for the nation.

Over the years, the ABSDF became an integral part of political struggle on the border. But it was haunted by the demon that all other political organisations in Myanmar have confronted: factionalism. But worse than that were the extrajudicial killings that occurred within the young organisation. The killings that took place in the ABSDF (Kachin) camps in 1992 stand out as particularly horrific and have been a shadow hanging over the ABSDF ever since.

I abhorred these unlawful acts and spoke out against them. As I was based in Thailand, it was often the case that I got to hear about them only when I travelled to the Myanmar jungle side of the border.

By 1996, I, like many others, had begun to realise that the ABSDF's strength lay in our intellect and it would be only through political, not armed, struggle that we would achieve our goal. I continued to urge the ABSDF leaders to give up their unrealistic ideology and to follow the due process of the law the organisation had laid down.

Eventually when I heard of another extrajudicial killing in 1998 - despite many deterrents we built into the organisation - I could no longer identify myself with the organisation I had spent 11 years in and been ready to give my life to, and left. It was so sudden, just as I had so suddenly fled to the jungle in 1988.

Yet the ABSDF has had to endure huge sacrifices. After 25 years on the border and living on meagre support, they have continued to fight for their cause. In the recent ABSDF negotiations, I discovered that in the past 25 years, the organisation lost 629 staff and over 400 injured in the fight against the Myanmar military.

Over the years, I grew far apart from the ABSDF, maintaining contact with only close friends. Ideologically, we were opposed. I firmly believed that it would only be through Myanmar's greater engagement with the international community, particularly with the West, that we could achieve the freedom and democracy that we had all sought. I was therefore vehemently against the sanctions imposed on Myanmar by the international community. I wanted an end to Myanmar's isolation. The more I expressed these beliefs and worked towards this goal, the further apart I became from the ABSDF.

Then, finally, change did come to our beloved country. Less than a year after the new government was installed, I was back in Myanmar. I jumped at an offer to contribute to the peace process, believing that my experience in the jungle with armed ethnic groups and training on armed conflict and disarmament would be helpful in the peace process.

In the past 18 months, the Myanmar government has signed truces with 14 armed ethnic groups. The Myanmar President is keen to sign a nationwide ceasefire accord with all armed groups in the very near future. If achieved, it will be an incredible feat - an epoch-making event after almost seven decades of civil war - for a government that has been in power for less than two years. The ABSDF will play a part in this as the government wants to bring all armed groups to the table. I am truly happy that I am playing a small part in it and all other negotiations with armed ethnic groups.

In the past few months, I have sat across the table in negotiations with many armed groups, including the ABSDF. We are building trust across the table. They will not forget the past. Neither will I. Like all other armed groups, the ABSDF is looking forward and not backwards. Together we are here to build a new Myanmar.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is currently associate director of the Peace Dialogue Programme at Myanmar Peace Centre.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.