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Encounter With A Freedom Fighter

July 16, 2010

I had never heard of Mae Sot until I decided to cycle towards it about a week ago. I doubt if many foreigners have heard of it, and yet it’s one of the most interesting towns I’ve visited on my travels. It’s in Thailand, but 80% Burmese. Most inhabitants are refugees, and some are leading the fight against the oppressive and violent military junta that rule their country. This week I spent a fascinating evening in Mae Sot with one of the leaders of the Burmese Pro-Democracy Movement, and I thought, just for one blog, I’d veer from bicycle tales and tell you a little about an incredible man who had never heard of cricket, let alone The Ashes – until this week.

The waiters in the cafe all wore bright orange Burmese pro-democracy T-shirts, and Burmese refugees spoke in hushed tones at each table. As I sat outside having a beer with a serious, well-spoken refugee called Jo, he told me he had fled to Thailand fifteen years ago. Life under the ruling Military Junta in Burma had long been unbearable for ordinary Burmese, but, as an educated man, he had suffered desperately in recent years. He began crying as he told me about his life in Burma. He is now a refugee living less than 6kms from his homeland, and unable to return. As we chatted, he pointed to a middle-aged man drinking at the bar with friends.

“That is Thiha Yarzar. He will tell you his incredible story if you’d like to hear it.”

A few minutes later, and Thiha began recounting his story over a chilled Chang beer.

On 23 September 2008 Thiha was released from prison after serving eighteen years of a twenty year jail term. He was incarcerated in 1990 aged 23, after leading the pro-democracy movement the National Students’ Union for a number of years. In the same year Aung San Suu Kyi was democratically elected as the new Burmese leader. She has spent most of the last nineteen years under house arrest in Rangoon, and has become the face of pro-democracy in Burma.

In 1991, after a year in prison, Thiha was dragged to a miltary court where he stood face to face with three army colonels. There was no lawyer to present to act in his defence, and he was sentenced to death for High Treason. He was ready to die for democracy, but two years later the penalty was reduced to twenty years.

For eighteen years Thiha was moved from prison to prison. He suffered malaria thirty times in two years. He and fellow student activists were hooded, and hung upside down for hours on end without food and water. He was hooded, hands cuffed behind his back and beaten savagely for days at a time. His cockroach-infested room contained only two ceramic bowls as a toilet, and he slept on a concrete floor. For eighteen years.

It’s now two years since his release, and he cut a relaxed but determined figure as he remembered the events leading up to his release. I asked him if he liked Thailand, and he just looked at me. He didn’t need to say anything. From here he can continue his campaign against the military junta that have ruled his country with an iron fist for forty years, and he is hopeful for change.

Below is an extract from an article recounting his extraordinary story. It describes his reunion with his family two years ago:

But, now, barely a year later, Thiha Yarzar listened carefully as Burmese military and police officials told him he would soon be on a flight to Rangoon, where he would be reunited with his beloved daughter and the rest of his family, nearly 20 years after he left his parent’s home as an exiled freedom fighter.

“It was like a dream,” he remembers of the night he drove in a taxi to his sister’s house.

Was this that old prisoner’s dream, and would I be returned to prison just before waking up?

He got lost because the city streets and the neighborhood had changed so much while he was in prison. Two police cars followed the taxi as he tried to find the house he had spent so much time in as a youngster.

But, he didn’t wake up in his cell. Instead, he finally stood at his sister’s door.

When his sister, Daw Khin Mar Win, answered the door, they just stared at each other. They had not seen each other since she visited him in Insein Prison in 1992.

“She shouted, ‘Hey! This is Thiha!’ She came running to meet me, crying.”

“Mommy is here,” she told Thiha.

Thiha stared in amazement as he watched an old woman come out of the house.

“It was my mother. But, I didn’t recognize her at first,” he said.

Daw Tin Lay Myint was now 68. He remembers her hair had turned white. She was thin, but looked healthy.

“She just stared at me, as she moved slowly toward me,” he recalled.

“This is Thiha!” his sister shouted.

“They thought I was dead,” Thiha said, explaining that they had lost track of him since tracing his whereabouts to Kalay Prison.

“Mom touched me, my hair, my face, my shoulder,” he remembered vividly.

They told him the family made plans to make a contribution to a monastery in his memory just days before because they thought he was dead.

“Then, my sister asked me if I had escaped,” he remembered.

“What did you do?” she asked. “There will be a problem.”

But Thiha eased their concerns by showing them his release papers and plane ticket.

That evening, Thiha learned of his father’s death in 1996, the same year as his wife had died.

He also learned how his father lost his rank in the army and was forced to retire.

“I’m very sorry,” Thiha told his mother and sister. “It was because of me.”

But, they told him, “It’s not your fault.”

“Thiha, I’m very happy to see you alive again before I die,” his mother told him.”

They told him they didn’t hold out much hope to see him alive again because so many prisoners had died.

“I had seen so much death and so many families destroyed during my prison term,” Thiha said during the interview.

“And, I should have died in prison. Many others suffered so much loss on the outside and then died.”

The next day, Saturday, September 27, 2008, was the day Thiha feared might never come. He went to his wife’s parents home to meet the daughter who grew up without him.

He recalled it took him more than two hours to find the house.

When he finally arrived, his mother-in-law, Daw Shwe Yu, was sweeping leaves inside the family compound.

“Thiha is here!” she exclaimed when she saw him.

“Come and see who is here,” she called to his daughter.

Tone Tone came and stood in the doorway.

“She asked me, ‘Are you Dad?’” he remembered vividly.

“I said nothing. I had no strength to speak. I had no words.”

If you would like to read full story of Thiha’s extraordinary struggle, click here.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Brian Read permalink
    July 16, 2010 5:05 pm

    This is what makes travels such as yours so so so important….Thank you so much for sharing…All power to your legs…Brian

    • July 16, 2010 5:11 pm

      I dont know what you mean when you say ‘important’ Brian, but thanks anyway! it was an interesting evening…

  2. July 17, 2010 9:24 am

    Wow. Thanks Oli

  3. Adrian Woolrich-Burt permalink
    July 17, 2010 9:59 pm

    Superb stuff Oli.

  4. July 18, 2010 1:38 am

    Been loving your blog posts and following the journey. Your current posts bring back fond memories of Northern Thailand, but more so fond memories of the Burmese who I found to be great people.
    Keep em coming.

    • August 2, 2010 4:14 pm

      Yeah they’re great people the Burmese ive met, I agree Hap. Terribly sad stories mind you, almost all of them. Thanks for the comment, and for following…

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