Friday, February 1, 2002

Democracy Now!

Democracy Now!

Margarita Rossi finds out why Burmese activist Min Zin has been wanted for arrest since age 15.

By Margarita Rossi

Before I met Min Zin, I was totally unaware of the horrific political situation that the people of Burma (now called Myanmar) are living in today. I had never heard about it on the news, never read about it in a newspaper and never discussed it with anyone. Oh sure, I was somewhat aware that there were unjust and criminal governments in power around the globe, and that millions of people still have to fight for basic human rights. But it's completely different to hear someone's personal experience of fighting an inhumane dictatorship at the risk of losing their own life.

Min Zin is a Burmese pro-democracy activist who has been on the run from his government since he was 15 years old. In 1988, at age 14, he joined the pro-democracy movement that was trying to bring about change in the Burmese government. For over 40 years, Burma has been under a military dictatorship whose control includes the government, economy, education, and media. Because of the corrupt and unethical manner in which the country is run, the living situation for the vast majority of Burmese citizens is abysmal.

Hearing Min Zin's story changed me. I don't think that I can ignore the political problems of another country just because they don't affect me directly. Min Zin is a remarkable example of what a young person can accomplish.

Youth Radio: How would you describe the situation in Burma to a young person living in the US?

Min Zin: Burma has been under military dictatorship for more than 40 years… the military took total control not only over the politics, but also economic and cultural issues. In terms of political rights, freedom of expression, religious rights, educational rights — all these things end up being low ranking. The Burmese military government spends more than 50 percent of their government budget on military expenditures.

Burma is not a homogenous society. It is comprised of several different ethnic minority groups. The Burman dominated military violated not only its Burman majority, but also seriously violated the human rights of ethnic minority people.

YR: And I read on the Internet that Burma prided itself before on its education and it had one of the highest levels of education in Asia.

MZ: Exactly. Burmese education was the best in Southeast Asia... but now the whole thing is degrading mainly because of the Burmese military. The Burmese military government sees the student as a threat. So they closed off the university as a weapon to disperse the student movement… they imprisoned many students, they torture students, they kill thousands and thousands of students.

But while they shut down all civilian schools, they opened the military medical institute, military engineering institute, military computer science institute only for the military children. So the point is not just discrimination against the civilian population, but also they channel all the international assistance and aid to military sponsored schools and institutes.

YR: That's almost exactly like what happens in Argentina which is where my parents came from. They just saw the students and the young people as a threat. What is it like for children and young people living in Burma? What is their daily life like?

MZ: Well recently the WHO [World Health Organization] reported that three out of five children suffer from malnutrition. And also there has been widespread use of child labor and forced labor in Burma for the construction of tourist sites or the constructions of gas pipelines, which have been invested by U.S. and Europe corporations such as Unocal and Total. [The Burmese] government works with the international corporations to build all this construction [and] they conscript young people. Its like forced labor to build all these projects.

YR: And you also said there was a really big drug problem?

MZ: According to latest State Department report, Burma is the largest drug producer in the world. Previously, Afghanistan was the largest producer. Now Burma is the largest heroin producer… in addition Burma produces more than 800 million speed pills.

Since 1988, the universities have been shut down for nine years because the government worries that the students will get together and stage a protest against the government. So to go back to your question, all these young people and children suffer from powerlessness and aimlessness because there is no education but drugs are very available.

Also, in Burma if you are a member of a student union, you can be arrested and sentenced to seven years imprisonment, minimum. This is a law… student unions are illegal. They have been banned by the military government since 1962. They literally demolished the student union building. You are not allowed to gather more than five people for political purposes. That's why many students tend to use drugs.

YR: You became an activist and started risking your life when you were 14. Why did you become an activist?

MZ: I became involved in the [pro democracy] movement because my eldest brother and sister were both university students. And one day they went to school and they didn't come home because both of them were arrested and thrown into jail. And my other brother got dismissed from school because of his involvement. My eldest brother was in prison for four months and he was seriously tortured. He was almost paralyzed. So that kind of experience and bitterness drove me to be involved in the student movement, even though I was in high school at that time.

YR: What kind of activism do you engage in?

MZ: Well, first I tried to organize township level high school student unions. And then I tried to expand the high school student unions to the national and state level. And then I managed to found a nation wide student union and I was elected as chairman.

When I was deeply involved in the student union movement, the military came to my house and tried to arrest me, but I was not there. This was in 1989. So they arrested my father instead of me. And since then I was on the run. So I was away from my family, I was dismissed from school. And during my time on the run, I managed to write many articles, not only for underground journals, but for legally published magazines under different pen names. That's how I got involved with writing.

YR: How old were you when you were on the run and then in exile?

MZ: I was on the run inside Burma for nine years. It was in 1989 and I was 15. And then in late 1997 I could not stay inside Burma anymore because my security was really under threat. Every single member of my family was arrested because of me. And the military intelligence opened a tea shop to monitor my home and my family's movements. So I couldn't do very much inside Burma. So I decided to leave the country in late 1997 after nine years of being underground. So at that time I was 23. And I arrived at the Thai/Burma border. And I was based there for four years before coming here [to the U.S.].

YR: What was it like being underground?

MZ: At first I didn't expect I would have to be underground for nine years. I thought I would be reunited with my family after one or two years. I feel really sad because I could not go to school… I lost my teenage life.

It was pretty hard to stay in sympathizer's houses because the military intelligence, twice a month, they knock door to door and they ask the whole family to get out of the house and they search the whole house. When they did this, I had to hide in the rafters or I had to sneak out the back door. It was so harsh. Sometimes I had to stay in the rafters from 9 pm to 2 am. I was so worried, not just for me, but for the sympathizer because if I got arrested for seven years, then they would get double — 14 years.

But even under such harsh conditions, I managed to continue my activism. I kept doing publication and circulation of pamphlets and organizing demonstrations. That's what happened in 1996. A huge student demonstration took place in Rangoon to protest against the military.

YR: Why do you continue to fight when there are so many risks? You would be sentenced to the death penalty if you were caught in your homeland of Burma. I have been engaged in activism, but I don't know if I would risk my life to fight.

MZ: Well this is a personal choice. The more you understand that your own people suffer from tremendous misery, how can you neglect such suffering? These are your own people, your own brother and sister. Also, my close colleagues who have been in prison, who have been in solitary confinement for more than 13 years in shackles, their health is deteriorating. When I fled to the Thai/Burma border, I crossed the jungle for five days. Four of my friends accompanied me. Two of those friends went back to Burma. They both got arrested. One got the death penalty, the other got 60 years in prison. They are both the same age as me. How can I be ignorant, how can I be indifferent to such suffering of my fellow colleagues? You have to commit yourself to the cause because it is something that is larger than you.

YR: What do you want to accomplish with your activism?

MZ: We want to restore democracy and human rights in Burma. The whole society has been destroyed under the military dictatorship. We want to build our society. We must recognize and respect ethnic minority rights.

YR: Young people in the USA have no idea that there are such strict fascist regimes in the world now. It's so mind boggling. Here we are so protected from all of that. How can an American understand, but also take another step to get involved?

MZ: The US government, under the Clinton administration, did a good job. They imposed economic sanctions against Burma because of the human rights violations and drug involvement. It's really effective.

Also in the U.S., many students in colleges and universities got involved with local groups like the Free Burma Coalition which is the largest group of Burmese and American students working together to restore democracy in Burma by engaging in the boycott campaign against corporations that have investments in Burma. These companies support Burmese military regimes by purchasing products from Burma.

The other thing Americans can do is to write or call their local representatives to support legislation to ban imports from Burma and tighten sanctions against Burma. In this way they can effectively be involved and help the pro-democracy movement. I will say what Aung San Suu Kyi [1991 Noble Peace Prize recipient and Burmese pro-democracy leader] said, "You can use your liberty to promote ours."

YR: Do you see yourself going back to Burma? Do you hope to go back to Burma?

MZ: Yeah, I'm very hopeful. I'm always wanting to go back to my country, but not under the military dictatorship. I'm definitely going back to my country… also I miss my mom.

YR: What state is the Burmese pro-democracy movement in right now? Are you making progress?

MZ: Sure, we are making progress, but it depends on several factors. Most importantly is international pressure, to what extent the international community can coordinate with each other and put more concerted pressure on the Burmese government. On the part of the Burmese movement, we are trying our best — we've been trying our best for more than 14 years. We need the international community's assistance to move our democracy movement.

YR: Speaking of international commitment, what has the Bush administration done?

MZ: Well the Burmese government recently hired lobbyists from DCI, which is very close to the Bush administration. And they have been lobbying the Bush administration to relax its economic sanctions against Burma… this is something we should monitor.

YR: You'll be going back to Asia soon. What are your future projects and plans?

MZ: I'm going back to Thailand soon and I'll resume my magazine work. I'm also working for a radio station based in Washington DC. I'm also thinking about studying ethnic languages. I'm from the Burman majority group. If we want to envision a future federal union, we need to study the ethnic minority plight and struggle so that we can reach a mutual understanding.

YR: What's the name of your magazine?

MZ: Irrawaddy. You can visit it at You can also visit the Free Burma Coalition website at

— Margarita Rossi is political and proud.