Soldiering On For Freedom

Missing an arm and a leg, an ex-Burmese soldier wages a battle of a different kind.
2011-05-01
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Myo Myint at the public screening of "Burma Soldier" at the U.S. State Department in Washington, April 25, 2011.
Myo Myint at the public screening of "Burma Soldier" at the U.S. State Department in Washington, April 25, 2011.
AFP

Every week from his home in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Burmese refugee Myo Myint writes about some episode in his life and then broadcasts it back into Burma. His story is so remarkable that on May 18, U.S. cable television network HBO is releasing a documentary film about him, titled Burma Soldier.

It provides the first look at Burma’s marauding army from the inside.

A common soldier who was appalled by the actions of the army toward ethnic minorities, Myo Myint went so far after discharge as to enlist in the pro-democracy movement and speak publicly against the military regime and its atrocities, something unheard of among army veterans.

He was arrested, tortured, and imprisoned. Later, he was sent to prison again twice for long sentences with hard labor for refusing to abandon his political activities. Three times he rejected offers to be set free early in exchange for silence.

In all, he served 14 years, 11 months, and 26 days—a large part of it in solitary confinement. Meditating for hours a day helped him survive.

After his last release in 2004, he obtained banned books and educated himself about Burma's recent history. He resumed his political activism, but when threatened with 25 years hard labor, he fled to a refugee camp on the Thai border.

After four years in the camp, he was resettled in 2008 the United States, where he has family, but he continues to work in many ways against the regime and with refugees. He broadcasts portions of his life story into Burma over RFA.

Charisma

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Myo Myint gestures, April 25, 2011. He lost his right forearm and lower leg whilst laying a mine when he was a solider. The blast also took away most of the fingers on his left hand. AFP

Though he lost a leg, an arm, and an eye to a mortar round as a soldier, Myo Myint possesses a charisma that at times makes one forget his disability.

He has a radiant smile, the looks of a leading man, and at 48 years old, appears much closer to 38. He cuts a fine figure and wields his crutch with an athlete’s grace. Keenly intelligent, he seems to have picked up American ways quickly.

His disinterest in small talk and personal questions betray his sense of purpose. For him, the cause of Burmese freedom and democracy is all.

Every day, he says, he thinks how he can help political prisoners, refugees, and soldiers—all lives he has led.  Outwardly there is no sign of the nightmares that torment him most of the night.

Myo Myint grew up in Rangoon with four older and four younger siblings, the son of an army medical warrant officer. All his siblings graduated from college,but there was no money to send him and few jobs were available, so  at 17 he joined the army.

Even then, in 1980, the army was fighting against ethnic minorities, civil strife that still rages, but Myo Myint did not know it was routinely committing war crimes.

Mines

Taught that ethnic peoples are inferior and collaborators with insurgents, government soldiers regularly burn villages and make villagers serve as forced labor and human minesweepers.

Myo Myint found that soldiers regard rape of ethnic women as normal "as eating and drinking." He dared say nothing about these crimes lest he be reported as disloyal. Any soldier in his unit could have been a secret member of internal security.

He says he himself took part in no atrocities, but he was sometimes ordered to place mines near villages and saw villagers trigger mines, perhaps his, and be blown up.

Where once he took pride in being a soldier, he came to despise himself. But he had signed a 10-year army contact, and only when severely wounded was he allowed to leave.

As a civilian, he had time to think, and he made it his mission to end the civil war and its suffering. He met twice with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and joined the pro-democracy movement. He spoke out often and, during a major uprising in 1988, addressed 8,000 people at a rally and convinced 200 soldiers nearby to join the protests, leading to his first arrest.

Film

He was in a refugee camp years later when Irish photojournalist and author Nic Dunlop discovered and interviewed him and decided to make a film of his life.

“What makes Myo Myint’s story so compelling,” says Dunlop, is “he did this u-turn in a very spectacular way and really paid a very heavy price for doing so ... he did it very publicly and he also persuaded members of military ... to join the pro-democracy movement.”

Myo Myint started working with opposition groups in the refugee camp and has continued in Fort Wayne. He belongs to an association of former Burmese political prisoners and sends money every month for aid to the nearly 2,100 still held and their families.

Burmese prisons hold the country’s real leaders, he says, calling for their unconditional release, so they can return to politics. "Without them,” he asks “how can we get our country back?”

He has spoken publicly about Burma to groups in the Fort Wayne area many times. His laptop has all sorts of information about Burma that he can flash on a screen.

Fort Wayne is home to 6,000 Burmese, the largest population in the country, and Myo Myint spends much of his time helping them as a volunteer. He interprets for Burmese crime victims and others who go to court or clinics and hospitals. He translates official documents into Burmese.

Two nights a week he teaches English as a second language. He and a friend produce a weekly 30-minute public television program for the Burmese community. He helps edit and finance a monthly magazine that educates Burmese in American ways. He organizes pro-democracy events.
 
The past still torments him. Keeping terribly busy, he says, is a way to avoid thinking about it.

Reported by Peter Slavin. 

CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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