From the Archive

Awestruck by the Men in Uniform

By Ba Kaung 8 August 2017

In August 2010, when he was working with The Irrawaddy, Ba Kaung, a pseudonym for Myanmar Now’s chief editor Swe Win, wrote about the people he met connected to the 1988 Uprising. The Irrawaddy republishes the story to commemorate the 29th anniversary of the ’88 Uprising in Yangon, then known as Rangoon.

Armed with an army knife, my father went out in search of my two elder brothers lost among the protesters at the peak of the 1988 uprising. My aunt, wielding a bunch of bananas, also left the house and I followed her because I’d heard the soldiers were coming.

“Members of Tatmadaw must support the people,” was one of the slogans the soldiers were shouting in stirring unison. Now it became clear why my aunt had carried out a bunch of bananas—people were giving food to the soldiers, who didn’t break their stride as they marched.

I was 10 years old and awestruck by the long column of soldiers, who seemed to tower above me.

Ominously, however, they wore uniforms of only two colors—navy blue and khaki, identifying them as members of the navy and the air force. I didn’t see a single soldier in a green uniform, the color worn by most members of the Burmese armed forces.

I was aware that something was missing from this protest march, but I couldn’t know then how the absence of the “greens” would change the whole scene.

The forced social contract of 26 years had collapsed, followed by fearless criticism of societal ills and the formation of associations of every variety.

All were enjoying the enthusiasm of anarchy, united and sharing what they had. Life was beginning to resemble Rousseau’s natural state. Students, government employees or trishaw drivers—all seemed equal and anxious stakeholders in the future of their country.

Soon, however, a few anarchists turned out to be not that benevolent.

“To win democracy is our cause! Our cause!” was the rallying cry of a mob in our neighborhood of Rangoon. The group was rumored to be under the leadership of a mysterious swordsman called Yaung Gyi Bwe, which means Mr. Hair-knot in English.

Brandishing samurai swords and scarlet peacock flags, they also held spikes crowned by the burnt, severed heads of suspected Socialist government agents.

Ten years later, in late 1998, in a cell block in Rangoon’s Insein Prison, I found myself a neighbor of Naing Lin, a former army corporal jailed for two years for participating in the 1988 protests. After his release from a prison labor camp, he spent several years as a primary school teacher in a remote village in Shan State.

In August 1998, Naing Lin gave up his teaching job and returned to Rangoon to participate in another round of anti-government protests. He was arrested and sentenced to 21 years’ imprisonment on charges of instigating public unrest. He joined the younger set of dissidents jailed in 1996 and 1998.

Another of my prison comrades, Aung Swan, was a former fighter, a member of the militant All Burma Students Democratic Force, which he joined after taking part as a student in the 1988 uprising. He was arrested in 1994 while traveling secretly from his jungle base to visit his family in Tavoy.

In prison, Aung Swan was thought to be insane because he no longer spoke with anybody after he was beaten up by a group of criminal trusties because prison guards found a fellow political prisoner throwing food to him.

Both Naing Lin and Aung Swan have now been released. I recently discovered that Yaung Gyi Bwe, the mysterious swordsman, is living in the United States making Japanese sushi for a living. And my two brothers survived the crackdown unscathed.