Letter From the Jungle: Hours in Hiding After Letpadan Crackdown
By Lawi Weng 11 March 2015
LETPADAN, Pegu Division — It’s mid-afternoon on Tuesday, and I am still hiding in the jungle with a 55-year-old man named U Mote Sate, Burmese for Beard. We still don’t know how to get back to the highway, or how to get to a motorbike when we get there, so we can escape to safety.
U Mote Sate is my guide, and he tells me not to worry about getting home safely. Over the past three hours, we shared the experience of watching police relentlessly beat student protesters and ravage medical service vehicles, but he’s somehow still laughing.
“This is my experience, and I can tell the new generation about this brutality toward peaceful protesters,” he says. “I hope the international community will see how bad they are. What has been reformed?”
U Mote Sate is an activist who has been assisting a group of student demonstrators that had been corralled by police for a week outside a monastery in Letpadan, in Pegu Division, just northeast of Rangoon. He was trying to help move a barricade when police started hitting people.
“One girl, around the same age as my daughter, couldn’t run when the police chased after her. But I got her and put her in an ambulance,” he recalls of the scene just hours before.
As for myself, I was just planning to observe the protests as a reporter. But then I saw police beating people with batons, people were crying, and I ran. I hid in a banana forest with U Mote Sate and several others, afraid that authorities would come after me.
I lost my colleague, Steve, a photographer, amid the chaos. He called me and said he had hidden in the monastery, so I went back to find him. When I got there I saw that police had arrived, so I and a group of eight other people kept running away.
Steve called me again; he was hiding in a field behind the monastery. I told him I was running into the jungle. He said police were searching the monastery, and that I should keep running. Earlier on, he said, he had been struck with a baton and hit by a large rock thrown by police.
“The police should be people who maintain a peaceful situation,” he would later tell me, “but I found that they had lost control of their minds, they beat everyone and everything.”
So we kept on running toward the jungle. We waited for what seemed like a long time, until we thought it was safe to leave in small groups.
Now U Mote Sate and I are the only ones left, and I ask him not to abandon me when he runs. I offer him 2,000 kyats so he can hire a motorbike if we get separated, but he assures me that he knows his way around the jungle and can get himself to safety.
It’s Later Now
We crept out of the jungle at about 4pm, and we came across a family of farmers. I was thirsty after several long hours of hiding in the sweltering heat, and they offered us water. I asked the couple to take me to a guest house in town, where Steve was waiting for me.
Kyi Myint drove me there against his wife’s wishes. She pleaded with him not to take me because she feared that police would give him trouble. I told her that because I am a journalist there wouldn’t be a problem, but she wasn’t convinced.
U Mote Sate stayed behind because he got a phone call informing him that more people were still hiding in the jungle. He told me that he couldn’t meet me, as he had to transport some people to Gyobingauk, also in Pegu.
“I can’t go with you, bro, they are still in hiding. I need to bring them with me before I can go back,” he said, “but I’ll see you another time.”
Kyi Myint let me do the driving because he wasn’t very confident with a passenger. Along the way we saw that many police were still on the road, many trucks were driving in and out of town. By the time we approached the guest house there was still a lot of tension between local residents and the police, and some people were still using homemade slingshots to fling rocks at the officers. Small crowds still loitered, occasionally shouting profanities at the cops.
Steve and I tried to hire a car and get out of there, as our colleagues in Rangoon were phoning us, telling us to come back as soon as possible. They told us what happened to some members of our team, as we had all been separated during the upset. I later learned that Sai Zaw, one of our staff photographers, was also assaulted. Though he was wearing a helmet, an officer struck him on the head as he was trying to take a picture. The baton brushed past his gear and swiped his face. He recalled looking around, seeing the aggression of the officers, and thinking that “evil had possessed their minds.”
We all had similar experiences. It was a relief to be united with Steve, and we just wanted to go home. In the town, no one dared drive us, even though some said they wished they could help. Finally and with some good fortune, we spoke with the owner of a guest house who suggested that we hire motorbikes and take a lesser-known route out of town. Police were still blocking many of the roads, stopping vehicles and asking people questions.
We drove around the way we were told, and ended up near my hiding spot. A further 20 minutes outside the town and we had reached the highway, where we could hire a taxi back to Rangoon. Our driver, Tun Tun, talked a lot in the car; about the crackdown, the brutality, about how over the past week he would sometimes bring food for the protesters camped outside the monastery. He said that when the Pegu border affairs minister said that he would allow the students to continue their march to Rangoon, he organized transport to pick them up and take them there.
“I had arranged for about 15 cars to drive the students,” he said, “and they were all parked behind the police [barricade], waiting for the students to come through and get in. But sadly, we found that they beat everyone instead of letting them go peacefully.”
One of his friends was arrested, about ten others fled like I did.
“These people are really brutal,” he said. “I was very disappointed.”