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Escape from tyranny

Part 1 of 2

Posted: July 17, 2008 12:36 a.m.
Updated: July 17, 2008 5:01 a.m.
U Mya Win steps into the sunshine at his home in Canyon Country, 12,000 miles from Burma and from what the world officially calls Myanmar.

He stands by a row of healthy low-hanging plants, arms behind his back.

It's a brief respite from the media reports he's been monitoring of the beatings endured by Burmese protesters confronted and detained by the military junta so far away - conditions he knows all too well.

Win, 58, was elected by the Burmese people in 1990 as a member of the National League for Democracy led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

And, while Suu Kyi remains under house arrest in her own country as the NLD's general secretary and champion of her people, Win fights quietly and diligently for a free Burma from his new home on the other side of the world.

This quiet man who bows for visitors and talks only of his pain when asked, looks across his lawn past the traffic on Soledad Canyon Road to the east and to Burma, separated from his constituents for whom he still fights.

"My life is my country," he said quietly in broken English. "I want to get democracy back (for) my country, for our people. I feel I cannot tolerate those torturing(s) and difficulties because we deserve democracy."

His election, his arrest and imprisonment, the indignity and punishment he suffered and his harrowing escape out of Burma are immovable scar-like memories. His vision and determination to see a free Burma, however, remains his mission.

Suu Kyi would rather see Win remain close and in Burma with her and the NLD, according to Win, but she respected Win's decision to first protect his family.

"U Mya Win is a man of integrity," she wrote in a parting letter to Win and his family on the eve of their escape from tyranny. "Who, as a prisoner of conscience to adhere strongly to his political convictions. The NLD, and I personally, would greatly appreciate any help given to the family of this brave and principled man who has sacrificed so much for the cause of democracy and human rights in Burma."

* * *

U Mya Win was born in Ingabu township near the town of Irrawaddy, northwest of Rangoon which was the country's capital city until just recently.

When he was a child, Win wanted to be doctor. But when he turned 13, the world around him underwent a sudden and violent change when, in 1962, the military took control of his country.

"At that time, the student movement and the democracy movement, they (military) shot and killed about 200 university students," he said, remembering those early years.

Win excelled in school, winning two gold medals for academic excellence, and by the 1970s, he was attending the Institute of Medicine in Rangoon. Then, during his fourth year of medical studies something happened that would change his life forever.

He asked for democracy.

Win led his fellow students in protests against the ruling party junta, including a protest on the 1971 death of U Thant - former general secretary of the United Nations and a native Burmese.

In 1976, Win was arrested and sentenced to nine years in prison for his political actions. His dreams of healing people, both literally and politically, were over. The military government barred him from ever continuing his medical studies.

When he stepped out of prison after serving four years of his sentence, he began work as a science teacher.

"They dismissed me, for life, from attending a medical university," he said quietly from his home on Sarita Avenue.

Win was an exceptional student. In high school, he had been awarded two gold medals for outstanding academic achievement. In the end, he was forced to pawn one of the medals just to pay for a bare-bones election campaign.

Emboldened by his ordeal and buoyed by the small victories won by the Burmese people under Suu Kyi, Win again took a lead role in the 1988 uprising against the regime that had imprisoned him and became one of the founders of Kyi's modern democratic movement.

He led a small defiant group called the General Strike Committee and boldly launched a party representing the people of Burma called the commission for the formation of Democratic Interim Government.

"We were poor. We did not have much money. In order to take part in the election I had to sell (pawn) one of my gold medals," Win said.

Once elected, as an executive member of the group's organizing committee, Win helped usher in the National League for Democracy led by Suu Kyi and which garnered world attention for its stand against the military regime.

In 1990, NLD candidates won a general election garnering 82 percent of the popular vote. Win was elected to parliament as an NLD candidate representing his hometown of Ingabu township.

The military regime, however, refused to acknowledge the election results, charging the NLD had tried to overthrow the government.

Efforts made by phone and e-mail to speak to a representative of the Embassy of Myanmar based in Washington, D.C., were unsuccessful.

"After the election, they (ruling party) broke their promise to transfer power," Win said with a wry quiet laugh. "They changed their mind. It was a free and democratic election. For our whole country our NLD won the election with a landslide majority."

Soon after, Win and 35 other NLD members were arrested and imprisoned in Rangoon. He was sentenced to 25 years to life for high treason and taken immediately to an "interrogation camp" where he was questioned by military officers assigned to the Central Intelligence Unit inside a military compound, he said.

"They questioned us for three or four hours, the whole day and the whole night," he said. "We were not physically tortured but they kept us without sleep."

Then he and the other NLD members were transferred to the notorious Insein Prison where most of the country's political prisoners are detained, according to Amnesty International.

Win and the others were thrown into 8-by10-foot cells normally assigned to cage dogs that had no toilet, five men to a cell.

Insein prison is believed to be the jail where Suu Kyi was jailed and is often referred to as "insane prison" by journalists reporting on it.

"In prison, they continued to investigate us. They questioned me," Win said.

Once Inside Insein Prison, Win and his four cell mates were kept alive on one bowl of rice per day, which was cooked in a boiled fish base using "fish bait" or rotten fish, he said.

Prisoners were allowed one family visit every two weeks during which time relatives would bring food. Each prisoner was expected to share the family food given to prisoners.

Win was visited by his cousin.

Win survived six years inside Insein Prison. He was later transferred 80 miles away to an old archaic British-built facility called Dheyawaddy Prison. There, prison guards immediately shackled him with leg irons that were reportedly fixed to leg-length iron bars that prevented him from bending his legs.

Win stands up in the interview to demonstrate how the device was attached to his leg.

"We have to put the leg like that," he said, standing with his leg rigid and straight, making a hammering motion to show how the device was riveted shut. "Here is another iron rod. This one is heavy."

Win was forced to endure these shackles for his first month in jail.

He said he expected to die inside Dheyawaddy Prison.

"For us, this was no good. We were sad to think where we were going and what, in Burma, is the situation and the conditions there," he said.

But, the political situation did change slightly when, in 1992, world pressure on Burma's ruling party, spearheaded by homegrown democratic pressure, prompted the junta to reduce the sentence of its prisoners. The ruling party reduced Win's 25-year sentence to 10 years which, by that point, had already been served.

He was released from prison but hounded by military intelligence officers, he said, who visited his home every three days.

Win wasted no time plotting his escape.

About three months after his release from prison, Win instructed his relatives to tell the military intelligence officer assigned to his case that he left to visit relatives in the south of Burma.

On the last day of virtual house arrest, Win told his assigned intelligence officer: "I told him I was going to visit my family in the delta."

When the officer left, Win instructed his relatives to tell the assigned officer at the next routine visit, three days later, that he was visiting relatives in the south of Burma.

"I told my uncle 'When this guy comes, tell him I am visiting my family in the delta.'"

After Win failed to return home, soldiers under direction from the Myanmar government descended on the home of Win's relatives unaware that Win himself had already set off on a harrowing trek through northern Burma. Before he began his journey west, Win tried in vain to reclaim the first gold medal he used to support his meager election campaign.

When the military intelligence officer returned to check on Win, he was already six days into his flight from tyranny.

* * *

His escape out of Burma began with a 600-mile trek due north to Mandalay.

From Mandalay, Win traveled on foot, crossing some bridges but avoiding others, wading across streams and swimming across rivers as he made his way to the Chin Hills mountain range.

Win said he drove as far as he could in a car through the mountains.

"It was very very difficult," he said, recalling the climb by foot up and over mountains 8,000-feet high along footpaths used by bandits and opium smugglers. "It is very very steep and the road is no good."

Win said he had packed food for the ordeal of crossing the mountainous border from Burma into the Indian province of Mesoran.

"In some places, I had to wait for some contents (traveling supplies), wait maybe one or two days. I have to take time to (gather) the contents, then after that I cross the stream and the border line, not too much a long way.

"It is important to pack (enough) food to pass through the border line," he said.

Once he crossed into Mesoran state, Win met a small contingent of NLD supporters and sympathizers who helped him with plans to get to New Delhi.

At this point, Win had traveled 800 miles.

Win traveled around the northeastern corner of Bangladesh to the city of Meghalaya, in India's Assam province, and from there 750 miles west to New Delhi, India.

"After that, I went to New Delhi. My community was there," he said, describing a community of between 600-800 NLD members, most of whom had fled to India from Burma after the 1998 uprising.

Of the 35 NLD members arrested after the election in 1990, despite the reduced sentences announced in 1992, at least 24 of the 35 were re-arrested and returned to prison where they remain. A handful of members died. Win is the only NLD member of that group to make it safely out of Burma to the west.

Once he reached New Delhi, Win went to the American embassy and was immediately granted political asylum.

Just six months after arriving in the United States and re-connecting with his estranged family in Canyon Country, Win was quickly embraced by exiled Burmese officials based in Washington, D.C.

In October 2000, during the National Consultative Convention of exiled members of parliament held in Dublin, Ireland, U Mya Win was elected as Minister of the Prime Minister's Office (West).

He declined the position as minister in order to be with his family and, instead, accepted the role of chairman of the National League for Democracy (Los Angeles).

But, when he made the decision, again, to stand by his family, at his new home in Canyon Country, Win discovered his journey far from over. He knew he faced a personal journey moving to reacquaint himself with his wife, his daughter and his son.

IN PART 2: A family ripped apart by political oppression is reunited in Canyon Country.


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