In light of Hillary Clinton’s recent trip to Burma, we wanted to share the stories of three men and women from Burma—Ma Su Mon, Aye Maung and Hla Min. Their full stories can be found in Nowhere to Be Home: Narratives from Survivors of Burma’s Military Regime, the seventh book in the Voice of Witness series.
Nowhere to be Home is an eye-opening collection of oral histories exposing the realities of life under military rule. In their own words, men and women from Burma describe their lives in the country that Human Rights Watch has called “the textbook example of a police state.” To learn more about the book and the work of Voice of Witness, visit www.voiceofwitness.org/burma.
MA SU MON
Ma Su Mon became involved in Burma’s democracy movement in 1996, when the ruling military junta shut down all of the nation’s universities for four years. She began studying at the National League for Democracy office, where she met “Auntie”—Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—and was inspired to become a full youth member of the opposition group. As a result of her involvement with the NLD, Ma Su Mon was arrested by military intelligence officers and taken to Insein Prison, where she was subjected to cruel treatment, deprived of adequate food, and held in solitary confinement for eleven months. She was twenty-two years old. Since her release, she has become a journalist and is now living in Thailand, where she is pursuing her master’s degree in communications and a career in journalism.
When I became a full member of the NLD, I was just doing very simple things at first. But things changed after March 13, 2000, when we celebrated Human Rights Day in Burma. The NLD had a ceremony for Myanmar Human Rights Day, and we also had a poetry and picture competition. I wrote about my university experience in Burma, about how I was very worried about not being able to continue my education. I wrote that the military government’s oppression made me want to fully participate in the political movement; I realized that politics was the new university in my life. My poem won and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi handed me the prize at the ceremony.
We were really busy that month. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was traveling to our towns to help set up networks of NLD members and to assign student leader positions. Each town had three top youth leaders—first leader, second leader, and third leader. I was chosen to be the third leader in my town.
We knew that we could get arrested, so some of my friends didn’t stay at their family’s homes. I knew that something would happen to us when our leaders gave us those positions, but I didn’t think it would happen so soon. Soon the government started arresting all the members, and then they came to my house.
I was still living with my family in Dagon. It was April 12, which was our New Year in Burma, so I went to the NLD office for some festivities. When I went back home, my brothers picked me up at the bus stop because it was very late. I saw that a really nice car had stopped in front of my house. It was really unusual to see this. It had tinted windows, and we knew that only government officers could use those cars. But we didn’t know the car was for me.
I entered my house and went into my room. Maybe ten or fifteen minutes later, someone knocked on the door of my house. I think there were more than twenty people, but some of them stayed outside. Some of them were in uniform, like the local police. There were military intelligence (MI) people—they never wear a uniform. They have walkie-talkies and very short hair. The leader of their group was from MI. I think they also had people from the USDA—they’re not soldiers, not police, but they’re supporters of the government. The local authority person talked to my mom and said they wanted to check the list of family members. They read my name and said, “Where is Ma Su Mon?”
They just entered my room and started searching everywhere. They found some papers—some official statements and the document from when I won the poetry prize. They took everything. I was really afraid at the time, really nervous. I couldn’t stand on my two feet.
It took about twenty-five minutes for the military officers to collect all of my papers. They had my mom and the local township authorities sign a paper saying they knew and approved that they were taking me from my home. They blindfolded me, and they were very rough when they put me in the car.
When they took me to the military intelligence compound, there were maybe a hundred people there who had been arrested and brought in for interrogation. I could see the others—some of my friends had been arrested—but we couldn’t talk to each other. The MI officers said, “If you sign this paper, you can go back home right now.” The paper said, “I will not be involved in any kind of political movement. I will not participate any more in politics. I will not support this any more.” Some of my friends signed the paper, but I never signed it. It would be shameful for me, because I could not promise that.
After I said I would not sign, they divided us all into two groups. They put hoods over our heads, like they do for people getting the death sentence. We couldn’t see anything. Then they put our group in a police van, the kind with the bars. There were so many people we couldn’t even breathe. We couldn’t see each other, we didn’t know who was who. Maybe the trip took just a minute, but it felt like an hour until they opened the door of the van. They had sent us to Insein Prison, the biggest prison in our country.
Aye Maung was studying to become a pastor in Burma before he was abruptly imprisoned and then forced to porter for the Burmese military. We met Aye Maung in Malaysia, where he and his family lived in a precarious situation, hoping to be granted resettlement to a third country. Aye Maung sat with us in the Chin Refugee Center, a community center founded and managed by Chin refugees. The refugee center sits in the shadow of Kuala Lumpur’s gleaming Petronas Towers. The unmarked entrance to the center leads to a narrow, winding staircase; the office itself is full of activity, with many recently arrived refugees from Chin State seeking advice and assistance.
They made me line up with other prisoners, and they chained us all together, one by one. They put us in a military car, but they didn’t tell us anything. But as soon as they had called us that night, we knew we would be made porters. All prisoners are afraid to become porters. We were afraid, because we had heard that most porters die. Only the prisoners who have money can pay to not become porters.
The government doesn’t have much money, but they have many prisoners. So for them, it makes sense to use us for army porters—if we die, they lose nothing. But if they use horses or helicopters to carry their loads, the government loses money if the horse dies or the helicopter breaks. But it’s easy to take a prisoner and make him a porter.
We left Bahloat on January 28, 2006, and began walking to the Au Dou Rai army camp. We followed the stream, but it was hard. There was no trail. We were carrying so much—machine guns, ammunition, and rations for all the soldiers and for ourselves.
Some machine guns were so big that eight people had to carry them. We hadn’t gone through training, and we weren’t allowed to rest, so some porters couldn’t handle it. If one of us couldn’t walk any farther, the soldiers would just kill him. They didn’t want to leave any prisoners behind alive. And if someone tried to take a rest without permission, the soldiers would beat him with their guns. They would beat him so much that he couldn’t walk anymore, and they’d leave him there to die. People kept dying. My friends kept dying.
When we walked through combat areas, the SPDC soldiers would make the porters walk in the front. Sometimes there were landmines. One time, I saw a porter step on one and lose both of his feet. But another time, it happened to a captain. As always, we were walking with the porters in front of the army. But the porter didn’t set off the landmine, and the captain behind him did. Two soldiers lost their legs. But most of the time, I didn’t think about the landmines. I just walked. The load was so heavy, and we were always very tired. No time to think about the landmines, only about how we could carry on and get to rest. After the first village we stayed in, other villages we passed were empty. We saw no one. The SPDC had cleared the villages.
It took us five days to walk to the Au Dou Rai army camp. By the time we arrived, only 147 porters remained. Thirty-eight people had died on the journey to the camp.
When we made it to the camp, we could finally take a rest. We were very, very tired. But after a week, another bad thing happened. Four porters who were sick tried to flee, and the army caught them. The soldiers killed those four people very brutally. They broke their arms, and cut their tongues. Then they hanged them from a tree, and they made the rest of us watch. They wanted us to be afraid so no more porters would try to run away again.
Taken off the streets at nine years old and forced to become a child soldier, Hla Min was fighting on the front line in Karen State by age fourteen. He traveled for an entire day to meet us in Cox’s Bazar, a coastal city home to many Burmese refugees in Bangladesh—the country to which he fled in 2007 after the Saffron Revolution. He told us his story until 1 a.m. that night, knowing it would be our only opportunity to meet before he returned to work on a tobacco farm the next day. Hla Min is one former child soldier in a country frequently cited for having the most child soldiers in the world.2 Analysts have pointed out that the Tatmadaw’s ongoing forced conscription of minors is one of the crucial factors allowing the military to increase its size and therefore its strength.
I’d like to tell you the story of how I joined the army as a child. I was nine years old, and I was living in the Hlaingthaya Township in Rangoon Division. It was a school holiday on the full moon day in November, and we were making a picnic. At around 8 p.m., one of my friends and I went out to buy some chicken. At that moment, an army truck came and took us. When they pulled us into the back of the truck, I found there were six or seven soldiers inside. My friend and I thought they were killers and I was worried. They made us lie down on the floor—there were no seats—and when I tried to shout, they covered my mouth with their hands. They said, “You keep quiet, you have to come with us.”
My friend and I were afraid but we didn’t say anything to each other. I had heard from my parents that soldiers beat and arrested people in my village. I’d also heard that soldiers shot people in the street, so I was afraid that they might kill me. The drive felt very long and I had no chance to run away. When the truck stopped, we got out and I saw the army base. My friend and I had been brought to a Burmese army battalion in Rangoon Division.
When we arrived at the army base, my friend and I were brought to separate cells. They were like prison cells, and they chained the doors shut.
My friend and I were very lonely while living at the army base. When we first arrived, we were not allowed to talk to each other. We were confined to separate rooms and we weren’t allowed to play together. After working all day, finishing dinner, and washing the dishes, we were locked up in the rooms again. Sometimes they scolded and beat me when I dropped a bucket of water, or a plate or bowl. During those times, I missed my home very much. I cried for my mother and for my family. I was the youngest of five, and I would play with my brothers and sisters and go to school with them. My parents really loved me and they always made me happy. Sometimes when I cried, I was beaten by the cooks and by the sergeants. Sometimes they slapped me and sometimes they beat me with a stick. While they were beating me they would say, “Why are you crying? Stop your crying!”
After about two months at the army base, I was sent to a recruitment center. I think it was called the Mingaladon Recruitment Center. When I first arrived, I found almost seventy children there who were around my age.
Sometimes the soldiers let me play with the other children, and sometimes they asked me to fight with other children. The leaders would come to us and tell us to wrestle, so we had to fight with each other until one of us fell down—the person left standing won. Sometimes I won, but sometimes I lost. I tried to beat the others and when I won, I was happy because I was given snacks. If someone won, they’d give a snack to them or buy them clothes. Sometimes the army soldiers and officers told me, “When you grow up, you will have to hold a gun like me.” When soldiers told us that, we felt really pleased.
I was around fourteen years old when I was ordered to go to the front line. My officer told me, “You have to go and fight the guerillas in Karen State.” During my training, and then at our battalion meetings, the leaders always preached about how cruel the rebels were, so at the time I believed the guerillas were trying to take my country and kill my people. We were asked to search for the guerillas and fight them.
One day, while I was carrying the unit’s cooking pot, I heard a blast behind me and I fell down, unconscious. When I woke up, I thought I had lost my legs, but it wasn’t a landmine, it was a remote-controlled bomb that had detonated. It had hit my backside and my head—the shrapnel had injured my right ear and cheek, my back, chest, and arms, but the pot had helped to protect me.
It took me about a month to recover. After I was better, I was sent back to my army battalion and then on to the front line again. While we were on the front line, our officers ordered us to completely destroy the local people. They told us that even the children had to be killed if we saw them. I saw soldiers abducting young girls, dragging them from their houses and raping them. At the time, I felt that those girls were like my sisters.
When I was in the army, I thought the guerillas were trying to break my country, to destroy my country—this is how I used to think. Not now, now I’m not the same. I don’t know why people join the military. As for myself, I was forced to be a soldier. If I had stayed with my family, I would not have been a soldier. I think the army takes children because they need to strengthen their forces, increase the number of soldiers. I think there is a reward for each soldier who catches a child. Any time a soldier recruits someone to join the force, they get a lot of money. Older soldiers told me that if they recruit someone, then they can quit the army.