Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Exile From Rangoon: Burmese Academic & Dissident Fled Brutal Military Rule of Homeland

By Doug Blackburn

Aye Chan, believing he was a marked man, intended to flee Burma on May 19, 1990. The history professor had announced the plan to his wife and young daughter at dinner the previous day, telling them it was no longer safe for him to remain in Rangoon.

He would cross the border into Thailand and send for his family or return in triumph if the pro-democracy movement took hold. Either way, he hoped to see them again soon.

Then there was a knock at his door. It was 8:45, just 15 minutes before the 9 p.m. curfew went into effect. Two students were outside, seeking refuge. Aye Chan, sympathetic to their cause, could not say no. But he hesitated. "Were you followed?" he asked the students. "No,"they answered."We don't think so."

He allowed them to come in, offering them a place to stay for what he thought would be his last night with his family for some time.

Two hours later, there was another knock at Aye Chan's door. The students had in fact been followed. Aye Chan opened the door to find more than a half-dozen military officers with weapons drawn.

His last night at home ended earlier than he had expected. The professor was arrested immediately and thrown into prison, accused of organising students for armed struggle and shortly thereafter sentenced to 10 years' incarceration.

Prison Life

"Burmese prison life is the worst in the world." Aye Chan explains calmly, sitting in an office at bucolic Simon's Rock College in Great Barrington, Mass, where he is a visiting professor. "Many political prisoners have died in jail in Burma."

He and other prisoners started a hunger strike in September of that year to protest conditions at Insein Central Jail. He remembers shouting slogans, calling for the overthrow of the military government. Adrenaline coursed through the corridors of the prison. The shouting intensified, the cacophony growing in volume.

Two guards removed Aye Chan from his cell and marched him off to an interrogation room, where he was beaten. He was kicked repeatedly and hit with a rubber pipe. At least one rib was cracked possibly more.

Then he was blindfolded and tied to a chair in an upright position for three straight days. He received an injection in the back of his neck. To this day he doesn't know what he was given. It made him dizzy. If he appeared to be falling to sleep, a guard hit him. "I was not afraid. This might sound like boasting, but it is not,"he says, running his left hand through thick black hair."I thought they were going to hang me. If I was killed, that's the way of dying as a hero. That's what I was thinking at the moment."

Aye Chan was then transferred to a different prison, Tharawady Jail, where he was placed in solitary confinement for five years. "It was not a hard time for me,"he says."I meditated most of the day. It is a very good weapon to fight the time, being mindful to the body, concentrating on breathing. I'm not a religious Buddhist, but I know how to meditate."

An Iron Fist
Burma, officially renamed Myanmar in 1989 by the military government that has ruled the former British colony with an iron fist since 1962, is bordered by Bangladesh to the west and Thailand to the east. It is on the Bay of Bengal.

Once the richest nation in Southeast Asia, the country of more than 47 million today is impoverished. Life expectancy for males is 53 years, for females' 56 years. There is, according to the World Almanac. One physician for every 3,554 people: One telephone for every 317. The country was granted less-developed status by the United Nations in 1987.

At the time of Aye Chan's arrest in 1990, Burma was on the radar of the western world. The general ruling the country at the time, Ne Win, made the astonishing admission that his nation was coming apart at the seams and announced that there would be open elections.

Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of a long-dead national hero, led the opposition pro-democracy party to a landslide victory that the military government refused to acknowledge. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, and in 1991. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her eloquent, nonviolent campaign for democracy in Burma.

Aye Chan, now 51, does not remember when Burma was a democracy. During the military coup d'etat in 1962, Aye Chan's father was fired from his cabinet post and sequestered in a detention center for several weeks. "He wasn't sorry he lost his job. I remember when he came home, the first thing he said was, "We have lost democracy.' It was what he was most sorry about. He gave me a good example."

When Aye Chan enrolled at Rangoon University in 1968, there were two groups of student activists, pro-communist and pro-democracy. He sited with the pro-democracy faction, circulating leaflets in an underground movement during the college's 50th anniversary celebration.

A government crackdown ensued and many of the upperclassmen fled to Thailand. Aye Chan, a sophomore was arrested. "I denied all the accusations. Maybe they believed me, because I was released three weeks later and expelled for one year," he recalls. "They made me sign a pledge to not speak out against the government." "I was not very active after that. I was worried about staying in school and graduating. I wanted to be a professor. I wanted to study abroad."

Aye Chan became a teacher, although he was frustrated by the military's influence even in the halls of academia. There was pressure from the government to not teach Darwin's theory of evolution. When he was offered a scholarship to do research in Japan in1983, he gladly accepted. Even though his wife of five years and their young daughter were not allowed to leave the country with him. Aye Chan spent the better part of five years in Japan, where he became fast friends with Suu Kyi, who was also studying there. Student demonstrations were a regular occurrence at Rangoon University when Aye Chan returned to Burma on March 31, 1988.

He was sympathetic to the student movement, regularly serving as an advisor to the young men and women pushing to have democracy replace the military government. Many student leaders fled to Thailand, and Aye Chan had planned to join them. But he was arrested on May 17,1990, and sentenced to prison. His only outside contact was 15minute visits with his wife and daughter every two weeks. They were supervised, and he was permitted to discuss only family matters.

On June 20, 1997, he was released. Thirteen months later, he came to Great Barrington.

A Provost's Decision
U Ba Win, the provost at Simon's Rock for almost 30 years, is a Burmese native and was instrumental in Aye Chan being granted visiting professor status at the liberal arts college in the Berkshires. Ba Win was childhood friends with Aye Chan's wife, whom Aye Chan requested not be identified by name because she wants to be able to return to Rangoon to see family.

Ba Win had been looking into helping the family in 1990, before Aye Chan was arrested. After his release from prison in 1997, he contacted Ba Win. This time the Simon's Rock provost was able to help him escape although not for almost a full year, a period almost as painful as prison because Aye Chan was unable to get work.

Despite their common ethnic heritage, Ba Win and Aye Chan are not intimate. Ba Win says he has to this day never asked Aye Chan what he did to land in prison in Rangoon in 1990. "I just know that he got into trouble and he was sent to jail. We haven't really sat down and talked politics with each other," Ba Win says. "I don't like the idea of people being imprisoned, and that's enough for me to help them out. I don't care what their politics are." "In the end, if I was to limit myself by helping only people opposing the military regime, that would be politics sticking its head up again. I know students and faculty in Burma can't pursue a serious course in higher education at this time, and we want to help them".

Aye Chan is the first Burmese dissident to have joined the faculty at Simon's Rock. He arrived at the Liberal Arts College in 1998 with a three-year visiting professor appointment, which expires at the end of the current school year. He is beginning to search for a new position and intends to stay in the United States until Burma returns to democracy.

He remains an avid admirer and supporter of Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize winner, but Aye Chan has not had contact with her since he was imprisoned. He has sent numerous registered letters to her, but is convinced she has not received any of them. Suu Kyi remains a virtual prisoner in Burma, her status usually described in news reports as "unofficial house arrest." A news report in September said she was free again and promising to continue challenging the ruling regime and working for democracy.

Supporting the Movement
Aye Chan says he supports the pro-democracy movement in Burma in every way he can. Currently, two Burmese natives are staying with the Chans while attending Berkshire County Community College. Aye Chan's daughter attends the public high school in Great Barrington, while his wife is struggling to master English in her new country.

The history professor has shared the saga of his imprisonment with his Asian studies students at Simon's Rock, but this is the first time he has granted a media interview to talk about his travails. He is a serious man with an intensity that five years in solitary confinement could not quell.

It may not be surprising, given what he has been forced to endure, that he remains embittered. "In this case I am not a very good Buddhist, " he acknowledges, "I am supposed to get wisdom and I am supposed to forgive those who tortured me." "Well, I'm sorry," he says. "I can neither forgive nor forget what I suffered in the prison and the interrogation camps. My standpoint may be different than a young student leader. l don't want to retaliate. But I cannot forgive or forget."


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