From the Archive

Marching on a Diet of Marrows

By Ye Ni 8 August 2017

In this article from 2010, Yeni, The Irrawaddy’s Burmese language editor, describes surviving on the Thai-Myanmar border with the student army after fleeing the brutal crackdown on the pro-democracy uprising of 1988, 29 years ago.

I left my parents and younger sister in tears at our family home, and set out for the Thai-Burmese border after witnessing and experiencing the brutal crackdown in 1988 on the nationwide demonstrations calling for democratic change.

Like thousands of other young activists arriving at the border, I had a dream that we would set up an army to replace the ruling armed forces with one responsible for protecting Burma’s own people, not to kill and oppress.

The dream remains far from reality after 22 years, although the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF) was born in the border region controlled by the Karen National Union (KNU).

First priorities for the students arriving at the border were shelter and food.

My “regiment” was based in the Three Pagodas Pass area controlled by Mon rebels. It included civil engineering students from the well respected Rangoon Institute of Technology, who set to work drawing up elaborate plans for barracks to house 30 comrades.

The plans were systematic and detailed, prescribing exactly how much bamboo was needed and how much thatch. After one week of hard work, the barracks were completed and we settled in happily.

But after a few days, the structures collapsed—and so did the reputations of our dear civil engineers! We asked some young men from the area to help us rebuild the barracks, and finally we were able to sleep soundly.

Many of us who had been living in relative comfort with our parents had difficulty adjusting—I didn’t even know how to fry an egg.

We tried our best, but the results were often disastrous—rice that was either half-cooked or burnt and soup that changed its flavor with every cook.

Our only income was what we received in donations from Burmese living overseas.

A plan to grow and sell vegetables came to naught. Our leaders decided we should grow marrows and soon we were knee-deep in them. But they found no buyers in nearby markets—and marrow soup became a daily dish on our sparse and uninteresting menu. Marrows and yellow bean soup were the staples of our two meals a day and we rapidly grew tired of the diet.

We took out our frustration on the parade ground, where instead of marching to “left, right; left right,” we chanted “jou, peh; jou peh” (marrow, bean; marrow, bean).

The Burmese army and disease were our two greatest enemies. Malaria, dengue fever and a variety of respiratory illnesses were endemic, and we fell victim to them time and again. This was when our medical students and qualified doctors showed their mettle—true heroes who, with very limited medical supplies, treated not only us but also local villagers, who had never before had such professional attention.