It was on a recent trip to Myanmar that I made a promise to a friend. He told me his story of hardship and resolve against the Junta’s tyrannical regime, knowing that his was only a fragment of a much larger story yet to come to its conclusion. In writing this piece I intend to honour that promise.
This is a story of one man’s escape from unjust imprisonment for laws he neither broke nor challenged and his return to a relatively (yet still far from) free-spoken country years later. From distant refuge he watched his home spun from repression towards the prospect of an equitable future. In exchange for his story, he asked me only to tell it - a seemingly simple task to a storyteller. But how does one fit the perseverance of an epic into the word count of blog?
His motorcycle taxi route had its surges and its dry spells, much like the cyclical nature of the Mandalay tour-guiding seasons he weathered. But he couldn’t complain. Soe Soe was a contented man, just happy to be home and with his family again, absolved of the illegitimate crime of affiliation and freed from the menace of despotism. Under newly elected leadership and slacken economic sanctions, business in Myanmar, and particularly that of tourism and hospitality, was growing at an unprecedented rate. Concession to the outside world was a strange fate for an isolated military state strangled by half a century military dictatorship and its uncompromising iron fist.
Long before his story began, Soe Soe spent his free time learning the English language at Wey Be Ton, a local monastery, with hopes of boosting his tour-guiding business. He was a promising student of a particularly outspoken and politically active monk by the name of Ashin Kovida.This alone was enough to secure Soe Soe a priority placement on the government’s list of potential threats to “national interest.” His political convictions were decidedly anti-government, but in fear of exposing his family to the heavy-hand of the Shwe military regime, he neither spoke up nor acted out against the Junta.
In late 2007, Kovida’s reputation grew quickly as word spread of his orchestration and leadership role in the September protests, widely known as the Saffron Revolution a peaceful monk-led revolt deemed by many the tipping point in Burmese politics from which signs of democracy arose shortly thereafter. Quickly becoming one of Myanmar’s most wanted, Kovida dyed his hair blond, hung a crucifix from his neck, and fled. He later found himself in Switzerland, free to advocate for peaceful change on behalf of the Burmese people, as he continues to do to this day.
By affiliation, 4 students were arrested on a single morning following Kovida’s escape while 11 more, including Soe Soe, were being pursued. Their actual political involvement was irrelevant as the mere potential to hold an informed opinion was enough to legitimise proactive censorship. That afternoon, Soe Soe received an email from Kovida informing him of the arrests and urging him to flee immediately. He had arranged for a network of fellow activists and supporters to receive Soe Soe in the Mae Sot market just across the Thai border the following morning.
Hoping only to communicate this to his family, Soe Soe returned to his street too late. Or perhaps his timing was perfect, for had he arrived a moment before, the armed officers he saw at his doorstep from afar may have seen him first. Unable to pack a bag or say goodbye, he left behind a family and the only life he ever knew. He sold his rickshaw and hopped on a train southbound to the border town of Myawaddy. Five bribes at roadside checkpoints helped officials glaze over his ID without too much attention to detail. And just 3 km downstream from customs, Soe Soe used the last of his cash to cross the Moei River into Thailand by boat that evening. With neither proper paperwork nor passport, and no more cash with which to negotiate, he walked from the riverbed towards the mercy of an unacquainted Thai confidant he could only hope had his best interests in mind.
Fifty meters from refuge, he was confronted by the suspicions of two police officers “just doing their jobs.” Having once been told by a tourist that he had something of a Filipino face, in a moment of subdued panic he burst out at the officers accusing them of interrupting his work; a Filipino contractor involved in a high profile governmental project, he claimed to be. At about 5’2 and hoping to otherwise intimidate the Thai police with his superior English, he carried on until they eventually apologised and walked away in a panic of their own.
He’d arrived against the odds to find only the slightest sense of security. He was clothed, housed, and fed, but he was still a wanted man. The government’s henchmen could not hound their prey across protected borders but they would surely make it worth the while of anyone who did the hunting for them. Holding a number of under-the-table jobs, he dared not submit complaints about the sanitation of the dirty work he was forced to endeavor for half of the minimum wage. His employers, and even fellow employees, weren’t hesitant to remind him of the single phone call it would take to prematurely send him home. Soe Soe endured.
With monthly pay equal to roughly 50 USD (1500 baht), he was unable to offer much support to his wife whom he had no choice but to leave to care for their five children. With no other options, he circulated an email to the countless international friends he had touched with his kind nature and hospitality, sharing with them a detailed account of his story. 2500 USD in monetary support came quickly to the bank account of his host family, and Soe Soe’s overwhelming gratitude still brings tears to his eyes. With absolutely no other option, he entrusted the entire sum (over a decade of average per capita income at the time) to a Thai couple planning to visit Mandalay. With only a small photo of Soe Soe’s eldest daughter, Eidhendar (14), the Thai couple waited day after day at her favorite teashop. When she finally arrived, the couple passed the envelop of cash to her under the table explaining her father’s whereabouts and walked away.
The rest of his family joined Soe Soe in exile with optimism, but no guarantee, that Myanmar would one day welcome them home. It was only three and a half years after his escape that his so-called “fugitive” status was lifted. Following the democratic promises of new leaders, Soe Soe and his family returned to a relatively familiar but contrasting home, where the half-fulfilled prospect of political culpability remains a work-in-progress to this day.
One man and his family returned safely to a life once shattered by the reckless insularity of a military state’s absolutisms. Yet still, countless political activists are unable to return, not to mention the hundreds of political prisoners that Human Rights Watch argues are unjustly detained within Myanmar today. The European Union, United Nations, and Western countries have lifted sanctions on a government that has made strides in abandoning the oppressive tyranny of its predecessors. And reconciliation may be within reach one day, but equitability and justice remain far from the reality today.
To climb the slippery rope of democratic reform requires the support of an international community that is not placated by the stamina of injustice, nor by the persistence of political profiteers with so much to lose. Myanmar’s escalating religious conflict, and the government’s transparent one-sidedness, are making for many more stories of hardship and perseverance far from conclusions.
Logan Sullivan works for an international non-governmental organization as a Regional Emergency Coordination and Advocacy Officer responding to the humanitarian crisis in Syria and adjacent countries. He has worked on a number of international projects in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia, and has recently finished a book about his experiences in those regions.
Written by Logan Sullivan and published on 14-October-2014